The Agate by Joseph Southall

This striking self-portrait shows the artist and craftsman Joseph Southall with his wife, Anna Elizabeth (known as Bessie).


Egg tempera with traces of watercolour on gesso ground over linen weave
1003 × 503cm
Art Fund grant:
£180,000 ( Total: £383,284; Tax remission)
Acquired in:
Judith Smyth

They are standing together on a beach, most likely to be at Southwold, Suffolk, where they spent their honeymoon in 1903 and later enjoyed holidays together. Bessie is shown handing her husband an agate, a gemstone which can be found on the seashore in this area. Southall was born in Nottingham in 1861 but moved to Birmingham with his mother as a baby and lived there for the rest of his life. After some initial training as an architect, he began to concentrate on art and made a pivotal visit to Italy in 1883. After seeing the early Renaissance work there he became committed to painting in egg tempera. John Ruskin admired Southall’s early drawings and the artist became acquainted with William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. The influence of Morris and his ideas is evident in this portrait, which shows the couple wearing progressive dress. Bessie was herself an accomplished craftswoman, who worked on laying the gesso grounds for Southall’s pictures and in making the frames. Bessie’s act of handing the agate to her husband can be seen as a symbol of their collaboration, since the gemstone is used by craftspeople to burnish the gilding on picture frames. The painting has now been acquired by the National Portrait Gallery (where it has previously been on loan) as both a fine work of the Arts and Crafts movement and as a representation of two of its most dedicated disciples.


The artist; his widow; Donald Hope; Richard Barrow; his daughter Jane Livingstone in1980; her heirs.

Venue details

National Portrait Gallery St Martin's Place, LONDON London WC2H 0HE 020 7306 0055

Entry details

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