Sir Frank Dicksee



On loan

Leamington Spa Art Gallery and Museum (Leamington Spa, UK): Modern Pre-Raphaelites Visionaries

Sir Frank Dicksee 1853–1928
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1575 × 940 mm
Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1877


Shortly after Dicksee was granted a studentship to enter the Royal Academy Schools, he joined the Langham Sketching Club. One evening the set subject was 'Music'. Encouraged with the sketch he had made Dicksee decided to make a repetition of it in oil. In 1877, when he was only 24 years old, the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy with the new title Harmony.

Harmony is one of the most well known pictures by Dicksee, depicting a young man staring adoringly into the eyes of a girl playing the organ. The model for the woman was Hilda Spencer who was then a student at Queens College, Harley Street where Dicksee taught drawing. She sits in a trance like state, seemingly oblivious to her suitor's rapturous gaze. The painted furniture is reminiscent of the medieval figurative panels then being produced by William Burges (1827-81) and William Morris (1834-96). In addition the stained glass reflects the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism and, in particular, Henry Holiday (1839-1927). Holiday was introduced to the applied arts by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and Burges. In 1863 he began his career as a painter of stained glass, employing Dicksee for some years to make cartoons and research costumes and characters in the British Library.

In recent years an interest in the formal qualities of Harmony has been overshadowed by a burgeoning interest in the iconography of the painting. Kestner remarks that Dicksee suggests 'an intricate series of harmonies, beginning with that between the dominant man and objectified woman …The youth's contemplation endows him with authority, connoted by the gold band on the fourth finger of his left hand, as the enforcer of the myth of domesticity which constrained women' (Kestner, p.87). Kestner takes Dicksee's later self-confessed admiration for Mussolini as indicating his belief in male empowerment over women. Marsh has also suggested constructions of nineteenth-century patriarchy in Harmony centred around the Madonna stained glass which, she believes, is a motif for the devoted mother and wife. The subject of the painting, Marsh argues, is 'the harmonious qualities of true wifehood' (Marsh, p.74). These readings of Harmony, however, overlook the submissive pose of the male suitor who leans on his elbow, starring in awe, rather than in contempt, at the woman.

The picture proved immensely popular when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy having been given a central position in the first room by the hanging committee. The critic of the Art Journal remarked: 'Another young painter, who has taken not so much a stride as a spring forward is FRANK DICKSEE'. Voted 'Picture of the Year', Harmony was bought by the Chantrey Bequest for the nation for the large sum of £367 10s (Dibdin, p.4).

Further reading:
Gail-Nina Anderson and Joanne Wright, Heaven on Earth: The Religion of Beauty in Late Victorian Art, exhibition catalogue, Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham 1994, p.74, reproduced in colour, p.67
Rimbault Dibdin, Frank Dicksee His Life and Work, London 1905, pp.4-6
Joseph A Kestner, 'The Male Gaze in the Art of Frank Dicksee', Annals of Scholarship, volume 7, number 2, 1990, pp.187-8
Jan Marsh, Pre-Raphaelite Women, London 1987, p.74

Heather Birchall
May 2002

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Display caption

As an art student, Dicksee joined a sketching club that met regularly to make drawings on an agreed theme. One evening, their topic was ‘Music’. Harmony is based on the original sketch Dicksee made that night, and also uses his experience of designing stained glass windows. It was huge success when it was exhibited in 1877.

The model for the woman playing the organ was Hilda Spencer, a student at Queens College, where Dicksee taught drawing. Art historians have debated whether Spencer is shown as a passive object of desire, or a powerful figure and accomplished musician in her own right.

Gallery label, August 2018

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Catalogue entry

N01587 HARMONY 1877
Inscr. ‘Frank Dicksee 1877’ b.l.
Canvas, arched top, 62×37 (157·5×94).
Chantrey Purchase from the artist 1877.
Exh: R.A., 1877 (14); Late Members, R.A., winter 1933 (178).
Lit: Sydney Hodges, ‘Mr Frank Dicksee, A.R.A.’ in Magazine of Art, 1887, p.218, repr. p.220; E. T. Cook, A Popular Handbook to the Tate Gallery, 1898, p.208; E. Rimbault Dibdin, ‘Frank Dicksee’ in The Art Annual, 1905, p.4, repr. p.3.
Engr.C. A. Waltner 1880.

When Dicksee was a student he joined the Langham Sketching Club and one of the subjects set there for a composition was ‘Music’. Dicksee treated it in the medieval manner made fashionable by the Pre-Raphaelites. He had worked under Holiday making cartoons for stained-glass windows and introduced one in the background. This sketch he subsequently worked up into ‘Harmony’. The picture was an immediate success. It was given a centre position in the first room at the R.A. and was purchased by the Chantrey Bequest Trustees in the first year of their activity. E. T. Cook, loc. cit., writes: ‘The picture suggests indefinite associations with all beautiful abstractions whether of music, poetry or painting. Music is the type of the harmony between the man and the woman - the two notes in the human chord. Above the girl at the organ is a window, storied with a picture of that divine love of which earthly love, as the poets tell us, is the imperfect shadow.’

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I


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