Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910

HENRY PEGRAM 1862-1937

122 Sibylla Fatidica 1904

Bianco duro marble 155 x 124 x 98 (61 x 49 x 38 1/2) on a shallow verde mare plinth and with a detachable crystal ball
Inscribed 'Henry Pegram Sc.t 1904' lower right
Prov: Bt from the artist by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1904
Exh: RA 1904 (1694); Chantrey exhibition 1949 (319)
Lit: Royal Academy Pictures, 1904, p.7, repr.; Spielmann 1901, p.97

Tate Gallery. Presented by the Trustees of the Chantrey Bequest 1904

The title simply means 'the Sibyl who foresees the future'. The Sibyl's enigmatic prophecies in Classical mythology were realised as moments of fate that highlighted the futility of human endeavour. Perhaps the perfect Symbolist subject, they actually occur rarely. Pegram portrays the Sibyl as a terrifying, almost aggressive figure, whose wizened features contrast markedly with the sensual treatment of the nude young woman draped over her lap. She has apparently fallen across the Sibyl's knees in despair at the decree of the Fates. However, the sculpture also suggests an implicit warning of the dangers the voluptuous temptress potentially presents. This familiar characterisation of woman as threatening siren can be traced throughout British and continental Symbolism, but Pegram presents it here in a highly original context. The crystal ball and astrological symbols around the base of the sculpture are familiar means of prophecy, although their connection with Sibylline predictions is invented.

Sibylla Fatidica was widely viewed as Pegram's masterpiece when the subject was first exhibited, and it marks the fullest expression of his Symbolist style. Like no.101, it displays the influence on him of Alfred Gilbert. The concept of the nude figure draped over the Sibyl's lap undoubtedly derives in part from Gilbert's The Enchanted Chair 1886 (destroyed). Pegram revered Gilbert, and was one of the few sculptors among the small number of people who attended his funeral (see Dorment 1985, p.333). However, the ultimate source for Pegram's composition is, of course, Michelangelo's Piet? 1498-9 (St Peter's Basilica, Rome).

This marble version of Sibylla Fatidica was shown at the Royal Academy in 1904, the same year Pegram was elected an Associate, although he had exhibited the plaster of the group there several years before, in 1891. The plaster was shown at the 1891 Salon, and it won a silver medal at the 1900 Paris International Exhibition. The first French showing evidently partly inspired Julien Dillens's Silence of the Tomb 1896 (Mus?es Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels), although an even closer source for this is Watts's 'The All Pervading' (no.125).

Robert Upstone

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.262-3 no.122, reproduced in colour p.262