This is the first of three paintings by Brown that illustrate scenes from Shakespeare's tragedy King Lear. All three pictures are based on a series of pen and ink sketches produced during a trip to Paris in 1843-4. On 2 May 1848 Brown saw William Charles Macready (1793-1873) in a production of the play, and began work on this picture in November of the same year.
The painting illustrates Act IV, Scene vii from the play. The location is Cordelia's tent in the French camp at Dover. Lear is asleep, his thinning hair straggling across the pillow, his hands still clutching a set of keys. The physician on the left raises his baton and commands the musicians to play more loudly. Cordelia, anxious that her father should be allowed to sleep, utters this lament, inscribed in both spandrels of the frame:
Had you not been their father, these white flakes
Had challeng'd pity of them. Was this a face
To be explosed against the warring winds?
To stand against the deep dread-bolted thunder?Mine enemy's dog,Though he had bit me, should have stood that might
Against my fire; and wast thou fair, poor father,
To hovel thee with swine, and rogues forlorn,
In short and musty straw!
Lear's recumbent pose suggests the exhausted sleep of old age, while Cordelia, kneeling with outstretched hands, is the pitying onlooker. The stage-like setting is organised into a many-angled tent, its shape reinforced by the shallow arch of the frame. The isolation and stillness of the foreground figures are underlined by the half screen and the throng of musicians beyond. They seem constricted in their movements and the bright light of the distant seashore through the tiny opening in the tent only serves to emphasise the darkness and gloom of the claustrophobic interior.
Brown used models for most of the figures, but the head of Lear was inspired by 'a cast of Dante's and a drawing of Coulton' (diary entry, quoted in Parris, p.65). He used his favourite model, Maitland, for the soldiers on the right, and his new pupil and friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for the fool, who holds Lear in his sinister stare. He modelled the head of Cordelia on his own wife-to-be, Emma, but the hands were those of a professional model, Mrs Ashley. In order to render the spirit of Shakespeare's play, he chose to dress his figures in the costume of the 6th century when, according to Brown himself, as noted in his 1865 catalogue, 'paganism was still rife, and deeds were at their darkest.' Behind Lear's head he includes a detail from on of the main scenes in the Bayeux Tapestry.
The picture was first shown at the Free Exhibition in 1849, where it was well received, but remained unsold. Brown continued to work on the picture intermittently until 1854, when it was bought by John Seddon the architect for 15 guineas.
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.65-66, reproduced p.66, in colour.
Virginia Surtees, The Diary of Ford Madox Brown, New Haven and London, 1981.
Kenneth Bendiner, The Art of Ford Madox Brown, Pennsylvania 1998, p.41, reproduced fig.21.