T00911 Riders Encountering a Figure of Fate c. 1730
Oil on canvas 905×699 (35 5/8×27 1/2)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1967
...; J.O. Flatter, sold Christie's 17 March 1967 (148 as ‘The Knight and the Beggar Woman’) bt Agnew for the Tate Gallery
Aldeburgh and Tate Gallery 1967 (68 as ‘Scene from Macbeth (?)’)
Robert Raines, ‘Two Paintings and a Drawing by Marcellus Laroon’, Apollo, LXXXVI, no.65, 1967: ‘Supplement, Notes on British Art, 8’, pp.1–2, fig.1
This picture came to light too late for inclusion in Robert Raines's monograph and catalogue, 1966, but was included in the Laroon exhibition the following year and fully discussed in Raines's Apollo article, also of 1967 (op.cit.). It had been sold earlier in 1967 as ‘The Knight and the Beggar Woman’; but although encounters between riders and beggars recur in Laroon's work, this subject is more puzzling.
Raines suggests that it represents a scene from Macbeth, presumably the occasion on which Macbeth, accompanied by Banquo (and there is a second horse and rider in T00911) first encounters the witches. He rightly draws attention to supernatural elements in the picture, noting that ‘the old woman's gesture is not one of supplication but rather of exhortation or warning’, that pentimenti suggest that she was originally depicted as a hunchback with pendulous breasts, that an owl sits in the tree above her and that the leading horse is evidently terrified. The most obvious difficulty about this interpretation is that each of Macbeth's encounters is with three witches (presided over, once, by Hecate), and it seems most unlikely that even the most economical production or the most imaginative representation of the play would reduce three witches to one. Raines's suggestion that T00911 may have been inspired by Sir William Davenant's ‘operatic’ version of the play (more often performed in the first half of the eighteenth century than Shakespeare's original), in which Hecate has a more prominent role, is no more convincing. Even in Davenant's version (reprinted by Christopher Spencer, Davenant's Macbeth from the Yale Manuscript, New Haven 1961) there is no scene in which either Hecate or a single witch appears by herself. Hecate expressly chides the witches for appearing initially to Macbeth without her (`Why did you all Traffick with Macbeth|‘Bout riddles - & affairs of Death|And call'd not me ...’, III, viii, Spencer 1961, pp.121–2); and Hecate's familiar, ‘my little spirit’ who ‘sits in a foggy cloud and stays for me’ (until both ascend in a ‘machine’), is specifically named as ‘Malkin’, the familiar appelation of a cat, not an owl.
If Macbeth hardly seems the inspiration for T00911, the probability remains that it represents a scene from some unidentified, perhaps now forgotten opera; certainly the armour worn by the riders seems to echo ‘classical’ theatrical costume of the early eighteenth century, and Laroon, who apparently himself performed on the stage as a singer for about two years from 1698, retained his interest in the theatre. The subject may therefore rather lie in some Italianate opera, perhaps derived from Ariosto or Tasso, dealing with the well-worn, almost fairy-tale theme of heroes confronted, in a wood or at a crossroads, by an enigmatic and often foully disguised figure posing a choice between the path of self-advancement and that of virtue.
Elizabeth Einberg and Judy Egerton, The Age of Hogarth: British Painters Born 1675-1709, Tate Gallery Collections, II, London 1988