Philip Hermogenes Calderon was born in Poitiers in France in 1833, the son of a Spanish priest who had turned his back on the church and emigrated to England in order to marry. I think it is fair to say that Calderon Jnr. inherited a good deal of his father’s passion, determination and adaptability. Aged 16, Philip Calderon began studying drawing at Leigh’s Academy off Oxford Street in London but then decided to up-sticks and move back to France where he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts as a pupil of François-Edouard Picot.
Picot was a highly respected teacher and an eminent painter in his own right who had won the coveted Prix-de-Rome back in 1813 when a pupil of Jacques Louis-David. Calderon could have had few better teachers. Like his classmate William-Adolphe Bouguereau he was required to draw, draw and draw some more until the results were deemed to be both artistically correct and anatomically accurate. Unlike so many later artists of the 20th and 21st century it was this exceptional (though undoubtedly laborious) academic training that would enable Philip Calderon to not only sustain a long and successful career but also to move easily between genres, across generations and above changing fashions.
You don’t need to be a particular fan of Victorian paintings to recognise Calderon’s first big hit picture selected for exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1856. ‘Broken Vows’ is a typical (and terrific) subject picture that remains familiar to us today as one of the go-to images of lost love and betrayal. In subject and execution it might be mistaken for a work by one of the great painters of Victorian genre scenes such as William Powell Frith or an early painting by the Pre Raphaelite John Everett Millais. The picture establishes Calderon as a highly gifted and sympathetic portrayer of women – in this case a young Victorian lady at the moment she discovers her sweetheart’s infidelity. This is a picture of exquisite innocence and despair and, in both subject and handling, very much in harmony with the ethics and aesthetics of the buyers and critics of the 1850s. “The cad! You are better off without him, my dear”, you can almost hear them exclaim as they gazed upon it in the summer of 1857.
At this point in his career Calderon was obviously influenced by both of the above; his friend and contemporary Millais and the great subject picture painters of Victorian Britain; William Powell Frith, Henry Nelson O’Neil and Augustus Egg. The latter were members of The Clique, the group who really established the school of British genre painting begun by William Hogarth. Over the next three decades Philip Calderon was the driving force behind what became known as the St John’s Wood Clique whose members ensured the continuing popularity of subject pictures right up until the 1890s.
By all accounts Philip Calderon was a gregarious character and always very well-turned-out. At a time when the art and culture of southern Europe was very much in vogue his Spanish heritage would have made him all the more attractive. He obviously took pride in his appearance and so, unlike J.M.W. Turner, must always have made a very presentable and charming colleague, friend and party guest. Calderon features prominently in the three great Victorian paintings of the Royal Academy and its members – by Charles West Cope, Henry Brooks and William Powell Frith. In the latter he is pictured looking on disapprovingly at Oscar Wilde!
Philip Calderon was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1864 on the very same evening as (its future President, Sir and later Lord) Frederick Leighton whose ‘Olympian’ pictures of ancient Greco-Roman scenes he would also paint later in his career. In hindsight, surely no two RAs elected in the same year were to prove more devoted to and did more to elevate the reputation of that institution.
In 1867 Calderon was the very first British artist to be awarded a gold medal at the Paris International Exhibition, not to mention the ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur by the French Government. That same year, aged just 34, he was elected a full Royal Academician. The 1870s and 80s were to be no less successful and rewarding, during which time Calderon exhibited 42 paintings at the Royal Academy alone, including my personal favourite of his; ‘The Orphans’.
In 1887 Calderon (by now one of the most eminent Royal Academicians) was elevated to the prestigious position of ‘Keeper of the Royal Academy’ thereby being entrusted with the management of the RA schools. This role may have reduced his output of paintings but proved a great success not least with the students amongst whom he proved very popular. But perhaps the greatest testament to the respect in which Philip Calderon was held by his contemporaries came from Millais. At the 1868 RA exhibition Calderon – in his role as a member of the hanging committee – had chosen to display a picture by Millais in a position that was not to the great man’s liking. To everyone’s surprise the initially furious Millais soon calmed down, admitting that the decision was actually fair enough and that Calderon was after all “such a good fellow”.
A reminder of Philip Calderon’s importance as an artist came as recently as 2012 when his 1882 Royal Academy painting ‘Captain of the Eleven’ sold at Bonhams for £289,250. It now hangs in the famous Long Room at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London.
When Philip Calderon died in 1898 his obituary in The Times summed up both the artist and the man; “He had a grace of line and a gift of selecting subjects which would show it, a feeling for colour, a happy art in painting the charm in womanhood”, adding that his time as Keeper of the RA had been “a great success, his kindliness of heart and geniality making him a general favourite.”
by Gavin Claxton © Academy Fine Paintings Ltd 2022