Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection


64 A Group of Five Maidens c.1790-5

Pencil, pen and brown ink with grey wash and pen work on laid paper 25.3 x 14.3 (10 x 5 5/8)
Inscribed in black ink bottom centre 'T.Stothard'


Stothard was born in London, the son of a publican. After his father died in 1770 his mother apprenticed him for seven years to a silk weaver and designer in Spitalfields. In 1777 he became a student in the Royal Academy. Like his close friend Flaxman during the 1780s he produced designs for Josiah Wedgwood, the china manufacturer. From 1778 he made his greatest and most enduring contribution to the art of his day with his designs for engraved book illustrations. During the 1780s many of these designs were engraved by William Blake (1757-1827) whom Stothard had met in 1779, and Stothard's effective transposing of the current linear neo-classical style, with all its overtones of grandeur, into a lower key but still highly effective means of elegantly illustrating a text on a small scale undoubtedly influenced Blake's early illuminated books such as Songs of Innocence of 1789.

As has been pointed out by Shelley Bennett, this drawing relates to another Stothard drawing in the Huntington Art Collections (no.000.92, fig.21). This latter drawing has been associated with a design for John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress engraved in 1788, though there is no incident in the book which can be associated with such a group of female figures. The Opp? drawing has been usually titled The Wise Virgins after the New Testament parable of the ten wise and foolish virgins. However, since they can be identified as originally part of a composition of seven figures there is no reason to believe that this is the subject of T10067. The frieze-like grouping of female figures does, in fact, occur in a number of Stothard's designs of the 1780s and 1790s including The Pilgrim's Progress plate, the painting A Confirmation exhibited at the Academy in 1792 and Alfred in the Danish Camp of about the same period (repr. Bray 1851, pp.51, 27 and xxiv respectively). Of these a figure in the latter bears the closest resemblance to one of the figures, that on the left, in this drawing. The back of this sheet is rubbed with graphite suggesting that Stothard transferred, or intended transferring, the design onto another piece of paper or even a canvas.

The spontaneity and vigour of this drawing, with its dynamic outlines in pen and ink with its grey washes used to define light and shade as well as background added later, are typical of a style found among artists who moved in the circle of Flaxman (see no.62), Fuseli (no.42) and Blake during the 1780s and 1790s and which has roots in a study of the Antique.

Robin Hamlyn

Published in:
Anne Lyles and Robin Hamlyn, and others, British Watercolours from the Oppé Collection with a Selection of Drawings and Oil Sketches, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, p.164 no.64, reproduced in colour p.165