The Wine Press is one of Spencer Stanhope's early works painted during his association with members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and before he turned to painting allegories inspired by the Italian Renaissance in the manner of Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). Described by Stanhope's niece, Anna Maria Wilhelmina Stirling, as 'perhaps the finest work he ever executed', The Wine Press had an unusual origin according to Stirling, who claims that: 'It was during a visit to Varennes in his youth that, watching the treading of the winepress by the French peasants, he evolved this design' (Stirling, p.335). Stanhope, who was for a time a pupil of the artist G.F. Watts (1817-1904), completed The Wine Press in 1864, the year of Watts's marriage to the young actress Ellen Terry (1848-1928). Stirling recalls that as Stanhope 'was working at it in Watts' (sic) studio, Ellen Terry, the bride, came into the room and placed herself in the attitude represented by the figure in the picture' (Stirling, p.335).
The Biblical subject derives from the lines inscribed on the frame, 'I have trodden the winepress alone', which are taken from the Old Testment book of Isaiah 63:3 : 'I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment'. The historian, George P. Landow has identified the biblical image of the winepress with the notion of divine punishment, when God threatens mankind with death. In Isaiah 63:3, the Lord is angry 'because His people have not helped in the battle against evil' (George P. Landow, Victorian Types, Victorian Shadows, Biblical Typology in Victorian Literature, Art and Thought, London 1980, pp.182-3). The Wine Press may be understood as an example of Biblical typology, a form of symbolism, revived in the nineteenth century, in which divinely intended prefigurements of Christ's passion and Crucifixion were identifiable in the events of the Old Testament. Biblical typology was frequently employed in Pre-Raphaelite painting. Landow points out that in the Old Testament, the suffering of Christ on the cross is conveyed in the image of treading the winepress: 'Christ, who is both victim and conqueror, treads the winepress and is crushed by it.' (Landow, p.183).
Biblical typology is most evident in the work of Henry Holman Hunt (1827-1910), whose The Shadow of Death (1870-3, Manchester City Art Galleries), in which Christ the carpenter holds up his arms in the attitude of crucifixion, is comparable with the pose of Christ in Stanhope's painting as he works the machinery of the winepress. Comparisons were made by contemporaries between Stanhope's The Wine Press and an earlier painting by Holman Hunt, The Light of the World (1851-3, Keble College, Oxford). Both works portray Christ in his offices as prophet, priest and king in their representation of the jewelled crown, the 'ehpod' or surplice worn by the Jewish High Priest, which is lined with crimson, and the white undergarment representing the spotless humanity of Christ. However, Stirling denied any suggestion that her uncle had been influenced by Hunt's representation of Christ in The Light of the World, declaring that 'the resemblance which critics profess to discover between the two was disclaimed by Holman Hunt himself.' (Stirling, p.335). The Wine Press was later also compared with the work of Simeon Solomon by one reviewer when it was shown at a retrospective exhibition of Stanhope's work at the Carfax Gallery, London in 1909 (Art Journal, 1909, p.158). Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) was a Jewish artist who painted biblical subjects, often from the books of the Old Testament and who was associated, like Stanhope, with the Pre-Raphaelite circle surrounding Rossetti. The art historians Martin Harrison and Bill Waters have suggested that the 'boxed-in space' of a contemporaneous work by Burne-Jones, The Merciful Knight (1863, Birmingham City Museums and Art Gallery) may have influenced the composition of The Wine Press (Harrison and Waters, p.72). Burne-Jones was making sketches for the landscape background in The Merciful Knight during a visit to Stanhope's house in Cobham, Surrey, while Stanhope was at work on The Wine Press.
Another version of The Wine Press, painted on paper in watercolour, gouache and gold paint and which pre-dates the Tate oil painting, is in the Lanigan Collection, Canada. This work, The Wine Press (c.1863-4), was bought by George Rae of Birkenhead, an industrialist and well-known collector of Pre-Raphaelite painting. Although the composition is essentially the same, the earlier version is simpler in design and does not possess the fine detail and hard outlines of the Tate work.
A.M.W. Stirling, A Painter of Dreams And Other Biographical Studies, London 1916, 335, 340, reproduced fly leaf, plate 1.
Martin Harrison and Bill Waters, Burne-Jones, London 1989, p.72, p.180, reproduced p.72, no.93.
Dennis Lanigan and Douglas Schoenherr, A Dream of The Past: Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Movement Paintings, Watercolours and Drawings from The Lanigan Collection, exhibition catalogue, University of Toronto Art Centre, Toronto 2000, pp.211-4.