Left: Mens Conscia Recti by Edward Clifford. 1868. Watercolour, with scrapping out, on paper, 16 ¾ x 12 ½ inches (42.5 x 31.7 cm). Collection of National Gallery of Canada. Accession number: 47162. Right: Leal by Edward Clifford. c.1869. Watercolour on paper, 11 ½ x 9 ¾ inches (29.2 x 24.8 cm). Private collection. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
Edward Clifford was a member of the “Poetry Without Grammar School” and an artist on the periphery of the later Pre-Raphaelite circle. As a young student at the Royal Academy Schools in the mid 1860s he became aware of the work of Edward Burne-Jones when it was exhibited at the Old Water-Colour Society and was "made captive for ever" by its charms. The early date of 1868 for this watercolour puts it right in Clifford’s "Poetry Without Grammar" period. He never exhibited it at the Dudley Gallery, however, despite the fact that it would have been highly appropriate for that venue since its visual qualities exemplify the principle of “art for art’s sake.” In the late 1860s and early 1870s Clifford sometimes worked as a studio assistant for Burne-Jones. Clifford was a great admirer of Burne-Jones' early work in watercolour from the 1860s and owned a number of them, including his Chant d' Amour [version in oil on canvas] of 1865. Clifford also made copies of many others that were so good it has been claimed that even Burne-Jones found it difficult to distinguish them from his own originals. Clifford painted primarily in watercolour and bodycolour, in a technique similar to that he learned from copying Burne-Jones' work. As an artist he is best known for his religious pictures, poetic landscapes, and portraits, generally of the aristocracy. He was a friend of many of the titled families of England.
The Latin title that Clifford gave to this watercolour derives from a famous passage in Virgil's Aeneid, when Aeneas is addressing Queen Dido of Carthage (Book I, line 604) and he pledges his gratitude by invoking the powers of justice and of a mind conscious within itself of rectitude (mens sibi conscia recti). The artist has not chosen to illustrate this episode, however, but rather by using this epiphet as a title Clifford implies the virtue of this grave young woman with her long simply styled hair crowned with a wreath of flowers, her righteousness being evoked by her resolute expression. This watercolour shows the influence, not only of Burne-Jones, but also of the portraiture of the Renaissance masters Clifford admired, particularly in its side profile harkening back to ancient portrait medallions, and in its landscape background. The unusual inclusion of bare tree branches extending into the composition may have been inspired by Japanese art. Flowering tree branches can be seen in Burne-Jones' The Lament of 1866, Albert Moore's Pomegranates of 1866, and Whistler's Symphony in White No. 3 of 1867.
This work by Clifford is similar to a smaller watercolour entitled Leal of c.1869 that was offered for sale twice at Sotheby's Belgravia in the mid 1970s. It features the same model in an identical pose, her hair once again adorned with flowers. Without the imaginative mysterious landscape in the background, however, it fails to elicit the same sublime mood conveyed by Mens Conscia Recti.
Last modified 25 September 2021