Sir Francis Dicksee

English Painter, Draftsman and Illustrator

1853 - 1928

Photograph of Sir Francis Dicksee

FRANK DICKSEE was a member of a noted artistic family, his father, brother, and sister Margaret were all well-known painters, and the family lived in the Bloomsbury area of London. He was initially trained by his father, before entering the Royal Academy Schools in 1870. Among the visiting lecturers who trained him, were the famous senior academicians Leighton (1830-1896) and Millais (1829-1896). Dicksee was a star student, earning many distinctions and medals. Like many other artists of the day his early career was largely spent in book illustration, as well as some stained glass window design. He started exhibiting at the RA in the mid 1870's, and also exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, though his real base was always the Academy. Dicksee made his reputation with Harmony, exhibited at the Academy in 1877, and bought by the Chantry Bequest.

Harmony: 1877

While a student at the Royal Academy School in London Dicksee joined the Langham Sketching Club. From time to time the club met to sketch on certain designated subjects; one evening the subject was 'Music'. Pleased with his sketch, Dicksee decided render it as an oil painting. In 1877, under the title Harmony, it became his first picture exhibited at a Royal Academy exhibition. The painting (hung in a place of honor opposite Sir John Millais' Yeoman of the Guard) was a tremendous success, and provided a real boost to the career of the young artist, who was only 24 years old. Harmony was selected for purchase as part of the prestigious Chantry Bequest, and as such became one of the first works acquired by the Tate Britain, where it now resides.

The medieval setting and costumes in this picture reflect Dicksee's interest in the Pre-Raphaelites. His design for this picture originated in a sketching exercise at the Langham Sketching Club. The theme chosen for illustration by members of the club had been 'Music'.

Music had been traditionally associated with the divine, but in the late nineteenth century aesthetes such as the writer Walter Pater focused on its abstract qualities. Immortal ideas are perhaps alluded to in the figure of the girl, who adopts the rapt expression seen in images of Saint Cecilia, patron saint of music.

Frank Dicksee was elected ARA in 1881, and became a full RA ten years later. Many of his pictures were of dramatic historical and legendary scenes. He also was a noted painter of elegant, highly-finished portraits of fashionable women, which of course helped to bring him material success. Many of these portraits are so beautiful, it is really difficult to disapprove of them - happy was the fashionable lady whose portrait was painted by Dicksee! He also painted landscapes. Dicksee lived in St John's Wood, and remained a bachelor. He was, of course, one of the nineteenth century artists who outlived his time, and was, to his credit, very unhappy with developments in the early twentieth century. Rather surprisingly, Dicksee was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1924, fulfilling the role with panache and tact. Physically he was a tall, good-looking, patrician figure, with a charming easy-going manner. Like his predecessor but one Edward Poynter (1836-1919), the traditional orientation of his art gradually isolated him from the artistic mainstream of the day. Dicksee was knighted in 1925 and died in 1928.

Photograph of Sir Francis Dicksee

Sir Frank Dicksee PRA
Obituary in the Times Thursday October 18th 1928

Sir Frank Dicksee PRA, whose death is announced on another page, came of an artistic family - his father being Thomas Francis Dicksee (1819-1895), who illustrated Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), and his Uncle John Robert Dicksee (1817-1905), animal painter. His professional career was thus made smooth for him in a way which was reflected in his work.

Born in London on November 27 1853, he was trained at the Royal Academy Schools, where he won gold and silver medals, and exhibited his first picture in 1876. Coming to maturity at a time when the very word 'art' was synonymous with romantic and sentimental illustration, and the thing so understood more popular than ever before or since, he was by nature and temperament born to enjoy the popularity; and he enjoyed it without a trace of affectation or the least violation of his artistic conscience. If ever the words 'born in due season,' were true of any man they were true of him. He succeeded not because he did what people wanted, but because people wanted what he unconsciously did; and how genuine was the relation between what people demanded and what he and his contemporaries, though none more sympathetically than he supplied, there is Melbury Road to show.

We may question if the thing demanded and supplied was the best thing for the welfare of English art, but the evidence - material in the prosperity of artists of the period, and the moral in the conversation of the drawing rooms, faithfully recorded in the pages of Punch of a 'natural' working of the famous law, is not to be ignored. For the first time since the 18th century, and for about 20 years art flourished in England. In personal manner Dicksee may be said to have represented a softening of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement which initiated the period of prosperity, and there can no doubt he owed his popularity partly to the softening. He was without the queerness of the original group and their eldest disciples, a more comfortable painter for the home. In execution he made an artistic virtue of prettiness.

Dicksee was, in short, the chief representative of the older kind of academic artist, whose aim was to express certain common sentiments in a convincing pictorial form. He early achieved success with the picture Harmony, which was bought for the Tate Gallery. In that picture we can see all his art, which remained the same to the end, and he had a work of the same character in the Academy of 1921, it was skillfully and thoroughly executed, and its aim was to arouse a certain kind of feeling, which no doubt he himself shared, rather than express any interest in the visible world. This he achieved very skillfully by the use of certain symbols. A young woman plays an organ with extreme sensibility in a sunset light, and a young man with still more sensibility listens to her. All these things which are symbols to conjure with are painted solidly but prosaically; the poetry is in the subject, not the execution. And that is why this kind of art looks old-fashioned now; for only poetry in execution keeps art fresh.

But Dicksee having found his way continued in it; he was not, like so many artists of the same kind, content to presume on the success, and to paint carelessly where once he had painted carefully. He always did his best to the end; and thus he was able once or twice to do skilful nudes, such as Girls Bathing, which because of its skill, and without sentiment, is less old-fashioned than his more popular pictures. He was a most conscientious portrait painter. In later years he became less popular than worse painters who parodied a more fashionable kind of art, who deserve sharp criticism and much more, for the kind of art he practices he did at least need skill and could not pretend that mere incompetence was dashing.


Frank Dicksee's remained lodged in the Royal Academy throughout his career, and he became ARA in 1881, and was elected a full RA ten years later. "Startled" was his Diploma work. In this painting we see a mother and child who were swimming in a lake, when all of a sudden a boat appeared so they are fleeing the water and gathering up their clothes. One can see Dicksee's good taste as established by his attempt to only using minimum nudity in the painting, just for expressing the embarrassment of the shy ladies; not indulging in nudity as a painter with bad taste would do. Dicksee's point is to demonstrate a real-life moment of embarrassment, modesty and shyness, which he had accomplished in the painting perfectly well, to the same time keeping the viewer's mind in motion: Did the ladies manage to escape into the woods just in time?

Similar in feeling and character to Harmony, though none of them so completely unified in expression were Romeo and Juliet, and The Passing of Arthur, The Redemption of Tannhauser, The Symbol, The Love Story, and The Funeral of a Viking. A comparatively recent work The Light Incarnate, representing the Madonna and child exhibited in the Academy of 1922 was reproduced in colors, and there can be no doubt that it gave to hundreds of people a sincerely religious emotion.

Romeo and Juliet

The Redemption of Tannhauser: 1890

"Now Tannhäuser had left Elizabeth and gone to the Venusberg where Venus dwelt, of whom, after a time, he wearied. When the singing competition was held at the Castle of Wartburg (Elizabeth's home) he came back and took his place among the singers. Tannhäuser, in his turn, lifted up his voice, but nothing could he sing, save one song--the praise of Venus. For this sin Tannhäuser was cast out. Despairing, he joined the pilgrims with Rome for goal. But forgiveness was not for him. Others the Pope absolved, but to Tannhäuser he said, 'It is easier for my staff to blossom than for thy sin to be forgiven.' So Tannhäuser returned to Eisenach, and there he met the funeral procession of Elizabeth, whom grief had slain. To him, at that moment, Venus appeared in the glory of her baleful beauty, and it was for Tannhäuser to choose between the living--passionate and glowing--and the pallid dead. 'Elizabeth!' he cries, and then falls dead, while the vision of Venus--defeated in the supreme moment--fades away, and the Pope's staff--miraculously blossomed into leaf--is brought by hurrying messengers from Rome, as a token of Divine forgiveness."

The Symbol

In the Symbol a young couple of noble standing is seen here taking a stroll through town, accompanied by their servants and entertained by street musicians. While the young lady is busy picking an orange from a nearby tree, her spouse is more pre-occupied by the strange merchandise offered up to him by a Chinese street vendor, in which he believes to have discovered some omen.

A Love Story, Paolo and Francesca: 1894

This painting was included in the Leverhulme Collection Sale in June 2001. Lord Leverhulme was a prominent collector of British art in the late 19th century/early 20th century and his collection eventually became today's Lady Lever Art Gallery in Liverpool.

The following notes are taken from the Leverhulme Collection Sale catalogue: "The story of Paolo and Francesca comes from canto V of Dante's Inferno. Dicksee's watercolor shows the lovers, who were brother and sister-in-law, embracing. When their adulterous affair was discovered they were murdered by Sigismondo Malatesta - Francesca's husband and Paolo's brother. Their fate was to drift for ever through the fires of hell locked in each other's arms. This was a subject which a number of English painters treated during this period including Rossetti's Paolo and Francesca da Rimini (Tate Gallery), 1855 in watercolor as a tryptich; George Frederic Watt's epic canvas Paolo and Francesca (Watts Gallery, Compton), of c.1872-84 which shows the scene of tragic denouement.

The pencil sketches on the back of this watercolor makes it apparent that this watercolor was the precedent for the later exhibited oil of the same subject, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895. Dicksee's delight in the final watercolor composition, treated as a tondo, persuaded him to produce the later oil version with the composition being displayed but in reversed mirror image

Funeral of a Viking: 1893

The Viking's body was laid on a pyre in his longship, covered in treasure and decorated with flowers and thorns, the emblems of sleep. His ship was set aflame and pushed out to sea where it shone brightly, before sinking into darkness.

In landscape Dicksee's work, though generally less appreciated must not be forgotten; in tenderness of feeling it recalled the work of the late Mr. Lionel Smythe RA (1840-1918). In the Academy of 1925 there was a very good example of Dicksee's work in figure and landscape combined entitled Daughters of Eve, representing a woman and a little girl under the boughs of an apple tree. Granting the gentleness of the theme and sentiment, it could hardly have been bettered, being perfectly consistent throughout; and in the same year the portraits of Kathleen Bowne, the daughter of Mrs. Carpenter Gelshenett, and Mrs. F.M. Hartung, the artist showed that he had not lost his power of graceful compliment to both youth and maturity, while in Italian Coast from La Mortola, he produced an altogether charming little landscape. Of late years he painted chiefly portraits of women; A Woman in White, in the Academy this year was especially notable.

Portrait of the Artist's Niece, Dorothy

Portrait of a Woman: ca 1867-68

Portrait of a Lady

Portrait of a Woman: 1887

Portrait of Agnes Malliam: 1921

Portrait of Dora

Portrait of Elsa, Daughter of William Hall: 1927

Elsa is a portrait of Elsa, Daughter of William Hall Esq, which Dicksee finished during the last year of his life. His last portrait of a woman was that of Mrs. Frank Pershouse in 1928. Sir Frank Dicksee passed away suddenly on the 17th of October 1928.

Dicksee was elected ARA in 1881, and RA ten years later, and in December 1924, he succeeded Sir Aston Webb (1849-1930), who retired under the new age limit, as President, receiving the honor of a knighthood at the New Year, and being created KCVO in 1927. He was himself due to retire under the age limit in November. Obviously a stronger artist might have been elected, but taking into consideration all the requirements of the office - personality, manners, tact, general culture, and popularity as a man - there was no doubt that the choice was a wise one, and many of those who roundly condemned his art warmly approved it.

After his election as President Dicksee in various speeches denounced certain morbid and unwholesome tendencies in modern art, which he attributed partly to a reaction against mere prettiness, partly to the heresy that hard work was not needed for the production of anything of permanent value. Less than a month ago, in opening the Guildford Exhibition, he deplored what he called the cult of ugliness, and said that art should be retained on sound and wholesome lines in two ways, by knowledge and by the exercise of the feeling of sincerity. The determined stand for what he saw as sanity in art was made the keynote of the occasion when in 1926, he was nominated by the new Chancellor of Oxford University, the late Lord Cave, for the honorary degree of DCL.

At all the Academy banquets over which he presided Dicksee was most successful in maintaining the tradition of urbane and polished oratory. At the first banquet after his election he showed, in his references to the late Mr. John Sargent RA (1856-1925), the breadth of sympathy which is far more important in any holder of his office than either depth of imagination or force of execution. To say that in person he summed up the artist heroes of 100 novels is to disparage neither his looks nor the craving indicated. It is a tribute to the elevating power of art itself that simple minds should demand the ideal artist. Dicksee has been spoken of as almost a 'double,' of George du Maurier (1834-1896), and in that writer's Trilby there is a curious instance following a well-known psychological tendency of the unconscious demand in a mind above the average. If memory can be trusted Dicksee himself does not appear in Trilby among the originals including Whistler (1834-1903) and Poynter (1836-1919), from whom the characters were drawn; but somebody like him, that is to say like du Maurier himself, is felt to be the typical artist the Platonic original from whom all the characters depart by idiosyncrasy.

Comments from the Art Renewal Center

There is a real duality running right through this obituary. The writer compliments Dicksee, but bemoans the obsolete nature of his art. The main points which I feel emerge I set out below.

Dicksee did not deteriorate with age, lucky man. His death was sudden, and he remained vital and energetic to the end of his life.

The comment about Melbury Road refers to Dicksee's large house in that prosperous area much favored by successful artists in the late 19th century.

Until the late 1890's Dicksee was an artist perfectly in tune with his times. In paragraph three the obituarist starts to express reservations about the old-fashioned nature of Dicksee's art. In the world of Sickert (1860-1942) and Augustus John (1878-1961), old fashioned it certainly was. It may be worth asking if any of the more modern artists produced anything showing the skill, and approaching the beauty, of Dicksee's pictures. The writer is, however, forced to admit that the painter continued to work totally conscientiously.

Dicksee succeeded Sir Aston Webb as PRA, who had retired due to the new maximum age limit, which was doubtlessly brought into effect to prevent a repetition of the prolonged term served by the wonderfully obstinate Poynter. The obituary writer feels that a stronger artist could obviously have been appointed, but justifies Dicksee's term as PRA by saying it was socially successful. As to whom the 'stronger artist,' may have been, he does not enlighten us. Perhaps Dicksee was a great President of the Royal Academy?

Source: Victorian Art in Britain

Passion - Leila

Portrait of Maude Moore: 1913



Spring - Maiden: 1884

The Confession: 1896

The Crisis: 1891

The Duet

In this picture, richly clad ladies are playing musical instruments and singing a duet. They could be sisters. The painting is yet another testimony of Dicksee's drapery painting skills, exquisite colors, playful exhibits of light and shade.

The Emblem

"Mr. Dicksee's art is conspicuous for its rich cooler and lovingly elaborated decoration of surfaces. This fine example shows us a beautiful and graceful lady in a rich interior seated at an embroidery frame. Her face is half turned to us as she raises the cloth covering the work. The attitude is reserved, as of one reluctantly disclosing a secret; and indeed she does not show too much, for her flowing sleeve tantalizingly hides the greater part of what she has uncovered. Pictorially the work has great charm; and though there is no story to it, it suggests an idea. We are to suppose that she has been long at work with cunning needle in secret, making a splendid banner, emblem of a great cause and destined to be borne at the head of its supporters. Such an object is worthy of the labor consecrated by love that she has given to it. But the time for its display is not yet, and for the present the secret must be jealously guarded."

The End of the Quest: 1921

In this painting, the viewer can't help but wonder the story behind the scene. Is this a suitor who was first turned away, then accepted? Or, is this am ex-heart-breaker, a man who first failed to realize what treasure is waiting of him in this lady? Or, is this a man returning from a foreign war or state assignment, eager to run to his beloved who had been holding his heart throughout his ordeal? The undoubted question is: Will you be mine? Although we might never know the entire story behind this painting, what is certain, is that Dicksee excelled in this painting in showing the missed eye-contact (the lady is looking above the man's head, to a distant point), the despair and suffering on the man's face, the almost apathetic, resigned expression of the woman, as if she'd given up all hope for a reunion already.

The Foolish Virgins: 1883

The Magic Crystal: 1894

The Mirror: 1896

The Mother: 1907

The Reverie

The full title is 'In a Reverie Induced by His Wife Playing the Piano He Hallucinates the 'Girl He Didn't Marry'.

The Shadowed Face: 1909

The Two Crowns: 1900

The Two Crowns of the title are the golden crown of a king and the crown of thorns worn by Christ on the cross. Dicksee invented this highly moral scene in which a medieval king, riding in a triumphal procession, is startled by the sight of a crucifix (or perhaps sees a vision of Christ) and is reminded of the transience of earthly power and success. In fact the chivalric, Christian knight had been a role model for the modern gentleman for most of the nineteenth century.

Two Nurses: 1909

Victory A Knight Being Crowned With A Laurel Wreath

This interesting sketch was almost certainly painted at the Langham Sketching Club, where members were judged on their efforts to represent a subject set at the start of the evening meetings. The subject was usually a single word and many of Dicksee's greatest pictures were conceived at the club, including Harmony (Tate), Chivalry (private collection), Memories (destroyed) and Reverie (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool). The present sketch probably relates to The End of the Quest (Leighton House Museum), in which a young knight approaches an enthroned maiden.

An Offering

An Urban Family - England: ca 1880

Dicksee studied at the Royal Academy Schools from 1870-75, where he was taught and subsequently influenced by Frederic Leighton and John Everett Millais. He began his career as a book and periodical illustrator, but soon became a fashionable portraitist. He was elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1881 Royal Academician in 1891 and became President of the Royal Academy in 1924. He was knighted the following year. Part of the curriculum for the pupils of Leigh's Art School was to draw at the Artists Society in Langham Chambers. This was one of the few places, apart from the Royal Academy Schools, where artists could attend life classes and sketch from nude and draped models. Two regular nights a week were set aside for time sketching: drawings to be completed within the limit of two hours. This venue became to be known as the Langham Sketch Club. The club reached its heights in the 1860's but was probably still in existence in 1900. It attracted not only up and coming young artists from these schools, but also well established ex-students and other artists. These evenings were exceptionally friendly and popular.

Camille, Daughter of Sutton Palmer Esq: 1914


This practice was closely related to Dicksee's early work as an illustrator. He used a similar watercolour-with-bodycolour technique for his designs for Romeo and Juliet and Othello when the plays were issued in Cassell's International Shakespeare in 1884 and 1890. In fact the Southampton picture is a re-working of the frontispiece to Romeo and Juliet.



Elopement: 1872

Flowers of June: 1909

Hesperia: 1887

It is I be not afraid

La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Enjoying "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", by John Keats


Miranda: 1878

Mrs Norman Holbrook: 1924

Oriental Pastime


Source: Art Renewal Center

Source: Sir Francis Bernard Dicksee Online

This page is the work of Senex Magister

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