Allen painted two versions of The Return from Cythera, of which this is the second. He decided to paint a second version because he felt the first, painted in 1975-7, was too small for the subject matter and that the trees lacked the appropriate tonality. In keeping with his lifelong practice, he used highly traditional techniques to paint the picture, which included grinding his own paint and applying thin oil glazes to tempera underpainting to enhance colour and form. The strong colour contrasts and the chromatic intensity of the painting are hallmarks of his later work. As with most of his landscape paintings it depicts the countryside near his home in Wallingford, Oxfordshire, where the picture was painted. Indeed, in the far distance the cooling towers of Didcot power station are visible, a structure Allen loathed and which he associated with the technological and commercial nature of the modern world.

The title and some of the imagery of the painting are derived from Jean-Antoine Watteau's (1684-1721) Embarkation for Cythera. Of the three pictures with this title that Watteau painted, The Return from Cythera shares most in terms of composition with the version in the Louvre, Paris, c.1717. In Greek mythology Cythera was the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love, beauty and fertility, and was thus associated with these themes. Watteau's painting, which is full of references to sexual desire, depicts a group of noble men and women setting out on a journey to Cythera; Allen's shows the return. The figures, who are still in Cythera, appear to be preparing to leave. In the foreground on the right a woman is packing up the picnic basket. Next to her a young woman is putting a dress on. In the middle distance a man and a woman seem to be walking down towards the river, a natural boundary that perhaps serves to demarcate the ideal and mundane worlds. Exactly what the group have been doing is not clear, but the naked and semi-naked figures, presided over by the statue of Aphrodite modestly covering herself, give the scene an appropriately erotic charge.

Allen's painting is also closely related to Titian's (c.1487-1576) Bacchus and Ariadne (National Gallery, London), as is Watteau's. In Titian's painting Bacchus, in a chariot drawn by two cheetahs, emerges with his followers from woods on the right of the picture. On the left, against an open landscape that stretches into the far distance, stands Ariadne, startled by their sudden appearance. The sky and the figures are all rendered in exceptionally brilliant colours. Titian's use of colour was partly informed by Renaissance symbolism; for example, blue, found predominantly in the sky and dress of Ariadne, often signified the divine or cosmic, while red, used in the clothing of Bacchus's entourage, denoted the flesh. While Watteau's painting refers obliquely to Bacchus and Ariadne through the incorporation of various motifs associated with it, Allen's borrows the basic composition of Titian's painting and emulates its palette.

Further reading
John Christian (ed.), The Last Romantics: The Romantic Tradition in British Art, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1989, p.197
David Mellor (ed.), A Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantic Imagination in Britain 1935-55, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 1987, p.143

Toby Treves
January 2001