Summary

The subject is taken from an early poem by Tennyson, 'The Ballad of Oriana', published in the Moxon edition of his Poems (1857). In the poem, Oriana stands on the wall of a castle, watching her betrothed in a battle below. An arrow meant for the knight strays, killing her instead. Sandys does not attempt to illustrate Tennyson's poem, but refers obliquely to one line of the ballad, 'She stood upon the castle wall'. Alfred Lord Tennyson was greatly admired by the Pre-Raphaelites, who were included among the illustrators for the Moxon edition. Sandys became acquainted with the Pre-Raphaelites in 1857, and was much respected by them although he always remained on the fringes of the group. Holman Hunt made two illustrations to Oriana for the Moxon Tennyson, but they bear no stylistic similarities to Sandys's painting.

The artist's interest in fifteenth-century Flemish painting, particularly that of Rogier Van der Weyden and Jan Van Eyck, is apparent in the minute observation of the sitter's skin, hair and clothing, and in the detailed background landscape. Sandys toured Belgium and Holland the year after painting Oriana. The bridge with a castle in the background, which suggests a European setting, was actually based on Bishop's Bridge in the artist's native Norwich. The same bridge also figures in Autumn (Norwich Castle Museum) which Sandys was probably working on at the same time as Oriana.

The texture of rich fabrics, such as the brocade in the cloak, had a recurring fascination for Sandys. The Clabburn family, internationally renowned shawl manufacturers, lived in Thorpe, near Norwich, and patronised the artist. Oriana was in the collection of William Houghton Clabburn until his death in 1889. He probably bought the painting when it first appeared at the Royal Academy in 1861. Sandys's only other exhibit that year was a portrait of Mrs Clabburn, painted in 1860. He also painted or drew other members of the family.

Oriana was lost sight of by scholars for many years, before reappearing at auction in 1984. It is one of several paintings by the artist of the late 1850s and early 1860s which show his earliest, most 'hard-edged' Pre-Raphaelite style. From about 1862 Rossetti's influence becomes more apparent in his work.

Further reading:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1988, pp.80-1, reproduced

Terry Riggs
January 1998