Catalogue entry

T04844 Colour Study for ‘Sir Calepine Rescuing Serenac.1830

Watercolour over pencil on wove paper 166 × 258 (6 1/2 × 10 1/8)
Inscribed on the back in a later hand in pencil ‘Wm Hilton RA 1839 sketch for “Sir Calepine rescuing Serena” | now at Tate Gallery’ and in red ballpoint ‘1786-d. | P.J.J. Morgan Swansea’
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1986
Prov: ...; ?P.J.J. Morgan, Swansea; ...; Agnew, from whom bt by Tate Gallery

William Hilton's large oil painting ‘Sir Calepine Rescuing Serena’ was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1831 (64). It took as its subject the following lines from Canto 8 of Book 6 of The Fairie Queen by the seventeenth-century poet Edmund Spenser:

Sir Calepine by chaunce more than choyce
The selfe same evening fortune hither drove
As he to seek Serena through the woods did rove ...

Eftsoons he saw one with a naked knife
Readie to launch her breast and let out loved life ...

With that he thrusts into the thickest throng.

Though well received by the critics and quickly recognised as one of the noblest of all Hilton's historical compositions, ‘Sir Calepine’ remained unsold in the artist's studio until after his death. In April 1841 the picture was presented to the National Gallery by a group of friends and admirers who had raised £500 for its purchase from Hilton's executors. This confirmed the work's status as one of the high points in British history painting but Hilton's extensive use of bitumen in pursuit of old masterly effects meant that by the end of the century ‘Sir Calepine’ was both unexhibitable and unrestorable. It was transferred to the Tate in 1954 and is now N 00178 in the collection. A wood-engraving after the picture was published in the Art Journal for September 1855, p.253.

Until the appearance of T04844 only one preliminary study for ‘Sir Calepine’ was recorded. This was lot 8 in Hilton's studio sale held at Christie's, 4 June 1841: ‘Sir Calepine; first sketch in bistre’. It was clearly categorised as an oil sketch, even though bistre is a brown watercolour pigment. It seems most likely that this so-called ‘first sketch’ was painted with a brown, oil-based pigment and should not therefore be confused with T04844. Such sketches would usually be made on a wooden or millboard panel. In the 1841 sale the work was bought by Harris for eight shillings; it remains untraced.

T04844 appears to be a colour study for the finished oil. So far as one can tell from the badly deteriorated canvas, Hilton in the end decided to unify his composition by using crimson, madder and orange colours - complementing the colour of the evening light seen in the distant sky - in the draperies of the four principal male figures. However, in T04844 this scheme remains unresolved, with touches of blue indicated on the sword belt of the figure nearest to Sir Calepine and on the costume of the crouching figure in the foreground.

Published in:
Tate Gallery: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1986-88, London 1996