Henry Thomson 1773–1843
Christ Raising from Death the Daughter of Jairus
Oil paint on canvas
2414 x 2990 mm
Inscribed in paint by the artist ‘H Thomson 1820’ within the decoration on the urn at bottom left
Presented anonymously 2012
Bequeathed by the artist in 1843 to Thomas Chamberlayne (1805–76), Weston Park, Southampton and Cranbury Park, Hampshire; by descent to Penelope Chamberlayne (born 1936), Cranbury Park, Hampshire; sold June 1966 to an anonymous purchaser; donated to the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1967 and accessioned 2012.
This large composition in oils of ten life-size figures was exhibited by the artist at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy in London in 1820. It shows a scene from the life of Christ related in three of the Gospels: Mark 5:21–43; Matthew 9:18–26; and Luke 8:40–56. According to these texts, Jairus was a leader of the synagogue whose twelve–year old daughter lay dying. He appealed to Jesus for help, and despite the scepticism of the mourners in attendance the child returned to life. In the catalogue of the Academy exhibition Thomson had printed the following lines from Matthew 9: 18–19, 23–5:
Behold there came a certain ruler and worshipped him, saying, my daughter is even now dead: but come and lay thy hand upon her, and she shall live.
And Jesus arose and followed him, and so did his disciples.
And when Jesus came into the ruler's house, and saw the minstrels and people making a noise,
He said unto them, Give place, for the maid is not dead, but sleepeth: and they laughed him to scorn:
But when the people were put forth, he went in, and took her by the hand, and the maid arose.
Jairus’s daughter is placed at the centre of the canvas on a bed or couch. While her pale skin and limp body are indicative of her death, her eyes have opened a little way signalling her restoration to life as if she were waking from sleep. Her white coverings, the cloth wrapped across her mouth, and the garland of flowers demonstrate that her previously dead body has been prepared for burial. Christ stands over her holding her limp left hand in his right, while signalling upwards (towards heaven) with his left hand. Kneeling at her head is Jairus, her father, whose hands are clasped together in worship, while her mother kneels at her feet and reaches out to the girl as she begins to stir. The three disciples mentioned in Mark (5:37) and Luke (8:51) are depicted at the upper right of the canvas. St Peter, at the left, can be identified by his traditional depiction as a bearded old man, while the central disciple is identifiable as St John who is often depicted as a young, beardless man. His brother, St James is the third disciple at the right.
While the scriptures state that the mourners departed before the child was brought back to life leaving Christ alone with the daughter, her parents and the three named disciples, Thomson has included three further figures in the composition. A contemporary reviewer, Robert Hunt of The Examiner, assumed the young female propping the girl up on a pillow and the young man to the left were the daughter’s siblings, though it is stated in Luke 8:42 that Jairus had only one daughter.1 They may instead be attendants or servants. The man behind the mother, who raises his hands in alarm, is presumably intended to be another mourner or attendant. While these figures are not mentioned in the Biblical narrative, their inclusion allowed Thomson to more fully explore the significance of the event by demonstrating a wider range of responses to it, thus heightening the emotional range of the painting. The astonished man in particular adds a note of drama that might otherwise be lacking in the painting, reminding the viewer that the event taking place is indeed a miracle.
The painting is an example of large-scale religious art created in an academically correct style in knowing emulation of the art of the past. It was exhibited at a moment of revived hopes that such high-minded art could find encouragement in Britain following the critical and commercial success of Benjamin West (1738–1820), and the growing interest in the European Old Masters occasioned by the flood of such works onto the London art market as a result of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. In the early years of the nineteenth century the British Institution was particularly active in encouraging British artists to paint history-paintings in the grand manner, by providing opportunities for students to copy or emulate works of the old masters from private collections. The annual Premium competition was a particular encouragement for young artists to exhibit serious historical, literary, religious and mythological subjects as bids for institutional recognition and the possibility of winning a prize or gratuity. Benjamin Robert Haydon (1786–1846), William Hilton (1786–1839) and William Etty (1787–1849), all exhibited religious, historical and mythological subjects in a manner highly informed by the European old masters in this period. Thomson, who was already established as a painter of genre and literary scenes, embarked on this, his first religious painting, rather later in life. The Examiner interpreted this as an attempt to re-establish his career on ‘the road that is worthy of the rightly ambitious’ after exhibiting a series of ‘petty pictures’.2 The time may have seemed ripe for such an attempt as Benjamin West, the leading historical artist of the day, had been ailing for several years, and finally died in March 1820 a few months before the exhibition, leaving an opening for a successor.
The painting makes deliberate and sustained reference to esteemed pictorial precedents. The ten figures in the composition are set in a shallow architectural space enclosed by a wall, above which can be seen a row of classical columns that stand behind it. While this may be intended to represent a room in a grand house, the columns suggest that the scene has been transported to a partitioned space in a Jewish Temple, perhaps intended to represent the Rabbi’s apartment. This shallow space, the economical treatment of architecture and the gloomy background are all reminiscent of some of Nicolas Poussin’s religious paintings, such as Penance 1647 and Eucharist 1647 from the Seven Sacraments series (both National Galleries of Scotland). In both paintings curtains form a screen before a background of columns, creating a shallow space populated by figures. This feature also appears in Jacque Louis David’s The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons 1789 (Musée du Louvre). Thomson therefore seems to have been influenced in his composition by French academic painting in the grand manner. The neoclassical tradition of Poussin and David is also recalled in Thomson’s simplified treatment of draperies and facial profiles, and their works are recalled in Thomson’s placement of his figures around a centrally-placed recumbent suffering body and in the arrangement of glances and expressions that connect these figures in a circle of response to the central event. (See, for example, David’s The Death of Socrates 1787, Metropolitan Museum of Art). The manner in which the figures closest to the recovering girl react most strongly to the miracle, while those further away have a more moderated response also recalls the technique of Raphael in works like The Death of Ananias 1515¿–16 (Victoria and Albert Museum). In fact, the male figure to the left of Ananias somewhat resembles Thomson’s astonished man, who similarly shrinks back, raising his hands in dismay, with his mouth agape and his hair standing back. By the nineteenth century this pose and expression had become a standard way to express terror or surprise, owing to the influence of Charles Le Brun’s La Frayeur (Terror) (itself based on a figure in The Death of Ananias) from his Expression of the Passions (1698) publication and engravings. Le Brun may also be a source for Thomson’s figure of the mother, who somewhat resembles several of the female figures in the painting known variously as The Queens of Persia at the Feet of Alexander, or The Tent of Darius 1660–61 (Musée National des Châteaux de Versailles). Another source, however, is suggested in the Literary Gazette’s commented that ‘the attitude and expression of the mother may vie with the finest of Guido [Reni’s] heads’.3 Her features and expression also resemble several other representations of distressed females in paintings by Thomson: Distress by Land 1811 (National Trust), Mauritania 1816 (Royal Academy of Arts), and Icarus After his Fall, Found on the Sea Shore, undated (Glynn Vivian Art Gallery). Such borrowings led one review to comment that ‘though some of the heads are not original, yet they have the merit of being well selected’.4 The painting therefore seems to have been recognised as something of an academic exercise in tasteful selection, combination and emulation.
Thomson’s handling is generally fairly broad, especially in the background which largely consists of a single block of grey-brown, modified by shading with simply-drawn details. The garments of each figure are painted in single blocked colours with shaded folds. His practice of painting an oil study before embarking on the final work must have helped him to execute the painting confidently in this bold and simple manner. Certain areas, however, have been more precisely worked, such as the mother’s dress which is richly decorated in a floral pattern of gold brocade, as well as the servant’s dress which is similarly patterned, and the collar of the astonished man’s garment. The Examiner criticised this ‘over-tendency to precision’ in the drapery,5 a fault that the painter Thomas Philips (1770–1845) had also remarked upon when the painting was being executed in the studio.6 Some of the faces – notably the three disciples and the attending female – are painted quite broadly. St John, with his hooded eyes, round face and small mouth, recalls portraits by the painter John Opie (1761–1807), to whom Thomson had been apprenticed in the 1790s. By contrast, the mother and daughter’s faces are more precisely drawn, and the hands are all very carefully studied. While the cloth bound tight enough around the daughter’s mouth to reveal the shape of her lips and chin is a particularly striking instance of precision and detail, the effect was in fact achieved with great fluidity, suggesting that Thomson approached it with confidence. The fact that the painting was rather hurriedly completed, however, is indicated by the rather more hasty completion of the disciples and attendants. Hidden in the shadows at the top left of the canvas is the faint appearance of a lamp hanging from three chains (another feature that may derive from Poussin’s Confirmation and Eucharist 1647 (National Galleries of Scotland). This artificial source of light may have been intended as a contrast to Christ as the ‘light of the world’. However, Thomson seems not to have pursued the idea as the lamp is extremely faint.
Thomson was at work planning this composition by the early summer of 1819. This fact and the ensuing progress of the picture are unusually well-recorded in the form of references made at the time by the artist Joseph Farington in his diary. In June of that year he recorded that:
Thomson I called on and saw His painted sketch of ‘Christ raising Jairus daugr.’ – & a study of a Head for our Saviour. I made some observations upon it. He shewed me a correspondence He had with R. Reinagle in consequence of Reinagle having remarked that the design was similar to a print He had seen, but upon being required to do it He could not say when or where. I recommended to Him to disregard what Reinagle had said & to proceed in making studies for His picture.7
In August Thomson was apparently still at work on large scale studies and was yet to embark on the full-size canvas. Farington noted then: ‘Speaking of Thomson’s preparing to paint his picture of Christ restoring to Life [blank] daughter, Philips thought his large painted studies were good but were carried too far; Thomson, he said, sets drapery for every fold, and that he must generalise when he comes to his large picture.’8 By December Thomson was reportedly ‘going on very well with his scriptural picture.’9 At the end of January 1820, Farington noted further advice provided by the painter [Robert] Smirke: ‘Smirke called in the evening. – He made some observations on Thomson’s picture on which he has been long occupied. He thought it defficient [sic] in energy of expression and wanted effect, in these respects he wd. have a good deal to do.’10 On 13 March Farington ‘saw Thomson’s picture of ‘Christ raising [blank] daughr. Which I thought he wd. hardly be able to finish in time for the exhibition.’11 Thomson clearly did struggle with the picture and with a bout of ill health: ‘Thomson called & complained of being very unwell the disorder in his breast’, wrote Farington on the 22 March, also noting however that, ‘He spoke with some confidence of the improvement he had made in his picture.’12 A week later Farington had supper with the painter, and said that his picture was ‘preparing for Exhibition’.13
The finished picture was included in the Royal Academy exhibition, which opened at the Academy’s rooms in Somerset House on Monday, 2 May 1820. From the exhibition catalogue we can determine that it was shown in the Great Room, the main display space which tended to receive the greatest attention from contemporary critics. The large size of the canvas would have meant that it was hung above the ‘line’ which ran around the room at a height of about eight or nine feet, which would have further helped its visual prominence.
It received considerable critical attention, largely, it seems, because it was one of only a few large historical paintings included in that year’s exhibition,14 and so automatically qualified for discussion. It also seems to have interested critics because it was the artist’s first attempt at sacred history and painting on such a large scale. Robert Hunt in the Examiner noted:
When Mr. Thomson many years since painted the Girl Crossing the Brook […] he excited no ordinary expectation […]; that expectation was however damped by the petty pictures which followed in successive years, and at last expired altogether. The work before us has however revived our hopes that this Artist has at length found out the road that is worthy of the rightly ambitious, for though some of the steps in it are feeble and stumbling, yet in the main they are firm and right onward to the intended end.15
Reviews were on the whole quite positive, with the notable exception of the Annals of the Fine Arts, which described the painting as ‘Flat, stale and unprofitable’.16 It was generally regarded as a work of ‘good taste’, rather than one of particularly striking effect, with one reviewer describing it as ‘one of those pictures which forms an exception to the vicious style into which the generality of the exhibitors have fallen. It has nothing glaring or meretricious’.17 As a result, however, the work was at risk, as Hunt point out, of being lost under ‘the glare […] from the frames [of other paintings], and from what is contained in many of them’.18
The New Annual Register pointed out that ‘the eye of the spectator’ was first directed to the father and mother rather than to the figure of Christ,19 and indeed it was these figures, along with the daughter, who received the most praise in reviews. They expressed the emotional implications of the subject-matter which reviewers were particularly drawn to, with the New Annual Register commenting ‘that there was great room for the display of some of the most interesting feelings of the human breast’,20 and the Examiner praising the ‘vigorous and just feeling and sensibility of the figures’, and the ‘sympathetic ardour’ of the artist.21 The expression of the mother received particular attention, with one reviewer praising her ‘anxious, tender interest’.22 Similarly the daughter was celebrated for her naturalism and sentimentality. The Literary Gazette, for example, commented on the tone of her skin which represented the transition from death to life, though the New Monthly Magazine, complained that the figure was ‘too faithfully and obtrusively’ represented, suggesting perhaps that the decorum of the painting, or the sensibilities of viewers, might be harmed by the apparent realism of the figure.23 Several reviews in particular pointed out the contrast between the girl’s pale flesh and the warm hues of the crown of roses.24 In general, however, Thomson’s colour was frequently criticised, with the European Magazine describing it as ‘weak’ and complaining of ‘a want of depth in the shadows’, and the Annals of the Fine Arts describing is as ‘low and ignoble.’25
Critical consensus found the figure of Christ to be the weakest aspect of the painting, with one reviewer describing Him as ‘deficient in expression and dignity’.26 The European Magazine thought that He was depicted ‘without that sublimity and dignity which belong to him’, while two reviewers likened Him to a ‘family apothecary’ and ‘a member of the College of Physicians’.27 The Examiner was particularly damning, saying ‘Christ […] is little better than an automaton, a mere perpendicularity’.28 Clearly, for most critics the figure was just too human and mundane. However, as the Literary Gazette suggested ‘The figure of Christ in some degree shares the fate of many other representations’.29 Indeed, this was a common complaint of religious paintings of the time.30 The challenge was always to represent His duel nature as wholly human and wholly divine, and the risk was that the artist would fail to satisfy either. Accordingly the New Monthly Magazine described Thomson’s Saviour as ‘neither awful nor amiable’.31 In his autobiography Benjamin Robert Haydon commented on the difficulty he faced with this challenge when he was painting Christ Entering into Jerusalem, which was also exhibited in 1820.32
Thomson had received his training from 1790 at the Royal Academy schools and as a pupil of the Academician John Opie, whose influence is apparent in his figures. He first exhibiting at the Academy in 1792 and became a more regular contributor from 1800, being elected an Associate member in 1801 and a full Academician three years later. He exhibited a mixture of mythological and domestic subject as well as portraits, and had several works engraved. He also painted illustrations to Shakespeare for the print market, and contributed small illustrations and portraits for periodical publications. Thomson was appointed Keeper of the Royal Academy in 1825, but only retained the position for two years, retiring due to ill health. In 1828 he returned to his birthplace of Portsea, Portsmouth and entered a life of semi-retirement, although he continued to sketch, and exhibit paintings until 1834, as well as contributing illustrations for the Lady’s Pocket Magazine.33
While British artists had traditionally not been greatly supported in the production of religious subjects, the early nineteenth century saw a new level of promotion of religious history painting. There were several earlier British paintings of the subject of Jairus’s daughter; most notably John Hoppner’s (1793), which was engraved by P. Thomson for Thomas Macklin’s Bible in 1795. This is perhaps the most likely candidate for the print that Philip Reinagle referred to as a source for Thomson when he saw the work in preparation in 1819 (as noted above).34 Thomson may also have been aware of Valentine Green’s mezzotint after Benjamin Wilson’s painting, The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter 1784 (British Museum), although this is quite a different composition in which the bed with the daughter is shown at the right and Christ is depicted with his back to the viewer. Thomson would probably have known Henry Tresham’s altarpiece for St Mary’s Radcliffe, Bristol, Jesus Restoring to Life the Daughter of Jairus 1792 (whereabouts unknown but known from an engraving of 1798 by Niccolo Schiavonetti, British Museum).35 Several versions of the subject were also shown in London exhibitions in the 1810s. These included two exhibits at the British Institution in 1813 by Charles Lock Eastlake (1793–1865) (no.49) and John James Halls (1776–1853) (no.52), the whereabouts of both now being unknown. A large canvas entitled Christ Restoring to Life the Daughter of Jairus, A Chief Ruler of the Synagogue by Peter Edward Stroehling (also spelled ‘Ströhling) (1768 –c.1826), was also exhibited independently in 1816 at 23 New Bond Street, London (whereabouts unknown).36 In 1823 the sculptor John Flaxman completed a sculpture in marble bas-relief of the subject as a monument to Emily Mawbey (1799–1819). A sketch for the design (British Museum) reveals compositional similarities to Thomson’s painting, with the revived girl placed on a bed at the centre of the image with Christ standing above her holding her hand, her father knelt beneath her to the left and three disciples to the right. This suggests that Flaxman may have been influenced by Thomson’s treatment of the subject. However, it is also possible that the influence was in fact the other way round, as in 1797 the sculptor had exhibited at the Royal Academy ‘a sketch in bas-relief from the New Testament’ (one of nos.1106, 1107, or 1108), that Allan Cunningham identified as the Raising of Jarius’s Daughter. There is no known sculpture connected with this identification, so it is not known whether the earlier design closely resembled the later monument.37 The subject continued to be popular into the nineteenth century, with a particular resurgence in the 1840s starting with the exhibition of Theodor von Holst’s Raising of Jairus’s Daughter at the British Institution in 1841.38 There is an engraving after the painting in the Tate Collection.
Thomson exhibited his version at a seemingly highly propitious moment for religious painting, given the critical and financial success of Benjamin West with his pictures Christ Healing the Sick, exhibited at the British Institution in 1811 (Tate; removed from inventory 1928), and Christ Rejected 1814 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) and Death on the Pale Horse 1817 (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts) both exhibited at 125 Pall Mall, London in 1814 and 1817 respectively. At this time the British Institution encouraged artists to paint religious history paintings suitable for the church by awarding annual Premium Prizes for history painting and by purchasing such works to donate to churches. Among the prize-winners and purchased works there were many on the subjects of miracles of healing or revival.39 The establishment of a Church Building Commission by the Church Building Act of 1818 also raised the expectation that contemporary artists would gain commissions for producing paintings of precisely this character to decorate a wave of new churches.40 Thomson could have reasonably expected therefore that his investment of time and effort into a picture of the character of the present work might be repaid by either the sale of the painting itself and its placement in a church, or a commission for works of a similar nature. He was, however, to be disappointed. As Farington wrote: ‘Wilkie said, that Philips had remarked how much was done for Haydon while Thomson’s picture in the Exhibition was almost unnoticed.’41
In the final decades of the eighteenth century a wide repertoire of scriptural episodes had been painted by British artists engaged in Thomas Macklin’s illustrated Bible, and Benjamin West planned about thirty-five paintings for an ornamental scheme on the theme of the history of Revealed Religion to ornament a chapel at Windsor Castle.42 In the first decades of the nineteenth century, however, there emerged in the London exhibitions a particular focus on scenes from the life of Christ, especially his healing miracles. This may reflect the practice of painting religious works speculatively with the church as a potential purchaser. While commissioned paintings often depicted subjects with relevance for a particular church,43 those painted speculatively may have had a better chance of selling if they depicted a subject with a broader relevance. Episodes from Christ’s life carried particular weight for the ‘rational’ inclinations of the Anglican Church as they are generally recorded as having had numerous witnesses, including the apostles, and were often authorised by more than one gospel account. As examples of Christ’s benevolence and grace firmly rooted in the gospel, often with conversionary overtones, and with a strong emphasis on faith, they were also well-suited to the increasingly evangelical temper of both non-conformist churches and the Church of England.44
Contemporary glosses and commentaries on the biblical narrative contextualise the event as one in a series of healing miracles performed by Christ.45 On the way to Jairus’s house Jesus heals the woman with the issue of blood who secretly touches the hem of his cloak in the knowledge that she will be cured (Matthew 9:20–2), and immediately after raising Jairus’s daughter to life he restores sight to two blind men (Matthew 9:27–31). Commentators have therefore interpreted the episode as an exemplum of the power of faith.46 This is demonstrated in the painting by the kneeling figure of Jairus, who is shown looking to Christ and praising him, rather than mourning over his daughter or expressing surprise. By contrast, most of the other figures in the picture have their gaze drawn towards the restored girl. Her mother rises from a position of prayer to reach out to her daughter, who, she has observed, is just beginning to stir. Although her maternal affection has caused her to break off from prayer, her expression is of tender love rather than astonishment, indicating that her faith has ensured that she is not surprised at the miracle. The man behind her shrinks back in astonishment – terror even – at the sight of the unearthly event. The contrast of Jairus’s expression with these other figures exemplifies Matthew Henry’s interpretation in his popular biblical commentary that Jairus’s ‘faith condemned the unbelief of the rest of the rulers [of the synagogue]’.47 Saints Peter, John and James look to heaven, Christ and Jairus’s daughter respectively, thereby linking Christ’s words to the miracle and the heavenly realm, and drawing together the different elements of the picture.
Biblical exegeses on the event interpret it as pointing towards Christ’s own resurrection, and, in turn, to the resurrection of the dead.48 Thomson emphasises this transition from death to life by depicting the girl as dressed for burial with her body shrouded, her mouth covered, and her head adorned with a floral garland. The inclusion of an incense burner and a large ornate book next to the Rabbi are also allusions to ritual and ceremony that viewers might have associated with death and burial. Thomson’s striking use of white pigment for the girl’s shroud, may refer to Christ’s appearance at his transfiguration (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:3; Luke 9:29) (where he is also accompanied by Peter, James and John), and to the white garments of the resurrected multitude in Revelations 7:9. The painting can therefore be interpreted as illustrating the central doctrine of Christianity that believers are resurrected through faith in Christ.
Christian faith is contrasted in the painting with Jewish ceremony and law, alluded to through the inclusion of various iconographic elements: Jairus’s skullcap, the large book, the incense burner, and the burial shroud, face-covering and garland worn by Jairus’s daughter. It is possible that Thomson may have carried out some antiquarian research, as contemporary studies frequently describe the corpse as being wrapped in white shrouds.49 The face-covering is not specified in the scriptural account of Jairus’s Daughter, or most antiquarian sources, although Lazarus’s face is described as being ‘bound about with a napkin’ (John 11: 44). The device allowed Thomson to depict the girl’s opening eyes as an important narrative element in the picture. The other elements are not recorded in antiquarian studies, suggesting that they were invented by the artist. For example, there is no historical record for the garland of flowers, although Agnolo Bronzino also included them in his version of the subject (Santa Maria Novella, Florence), or the burning of incense. If the book is supposed to represent the Torah, it should rather be a scroll. Thomson therefore seems to have been generally unconcerned with absolute historical accuracy, preferring to simply suggest ancient ceremony with objects that are in fact more reminiscent of Catholic than Jewish practice. His approach contrasted with that of the artist Charles Lock Eastlake (1793–1865), who in his 1812 version of the subject included numerous historical details of costume and accessories referring to Jewish funerary rites which he had ‘extracted […] from a Latin work in 34 volumes at the Royal Institution’.50 A transition from the Jewish Mosaic dispensation of the law to the Christian Gospel dispensation of faith is implied by the transition of dark to light in the painting, and the movement across the canvas implied by Jairus’s gaze towards Jesus and the diagonal compositional line that runs from the former’s head, through the head of his daughter to Jesus’s head and raised hand. The composition therefore reads as a metaphor for the foundation of Christianity.
Thomson’s production of The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter in 1819¿–20 was interpreted by Farington and Hunt as a sign that Thomson had decided to turn to high-minded historical subjects, raising the expectation that he would continue as a history painter. The painting, however, was to be his only recorded religious painting, though he would continue to exhibit mythological and literary subjects.51 His persistent ill-health (Farington records a catalogue of Thomson’s health complaints) perhaps deterred him from committing to such large canvases again.52 The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter was not sold or permanently installed in a public space during Thomson’s lifetime. After his death on 5 April 1843, the painting was exhibited at the British Institution’s exhibition of deceased artists, where it was identified in the catalogue as having been lent by Thomas Chamberlayne (1805–76) to whom the painting had been bequeathed. The exhibition contained works by various European old masters, as well as deceased British painters and two works by contemporary German artists with whom Thomson’s painting was displayed in the South Room.
While most reviews concentrated on the work of Joshua Reynolds, which dominated the exhibition, the Observer did list Thomson among the artists represented in the South Room commenting ‘there has not been a better exhibition of the class in this gallery from the time the British Institution was first founded’.53 The Art Union dedicated a few lines to the work, though it was rather critical, especially of the composition, commenting that ‘pictorial arrangement has been too little consulted here’ and that it ‘looks as if it had been studied and painted figure by figure.’ It also commented on the ‘peculiarity of the figure of the daughter – yet inanimate, and partially raised upon her couch.’54 The reviewer of the Artists and Amateurs’ Magazine, however, was more positive about the effort, describing it as ‘the most important attempt in modern art’ ‘among the works of our day’ in the exhibition. But the writer was sensible to the likelihood that the painting would ‘pass with the common observer for much less than it is intrinsically worth’, reflecting the common observation that exhibition audiences at this time had little interest in sacred history painting.55 His closing comments reflect on the status assumed by the work in Thomson’s career:
This work, to have been the production of a young man, with plenty of the requisite taste, and encouragement surrounding him, might fairly have been regarded as an example of the most fruitful and certain promise; as it is, it looks but like the attempt of an artist who, whatever he might wish and feel, had never encouragement enough to induce him to persevere and to succeed!56
The painting belonged to Thomson’s at the time of his death in 1843, when he bequeathed it to Thomas Chamberlayne (1805–76).57 It had, however, previously been in the possession (and perhaps ownership) of Thomas’s father, William Chamberlayne (1760–1829), who in 1824, it was reported, presented ‘a picture representing the raising of the daughter of Jairus’ worth £700 to the parish church of All Saints, Southampton.58 Descriptions of the church in the 1820s and 1830s, however, make no mention of the work but describe the altar as having an unfilled space left for a painting.59 It seems therefore never to have been installed in the church, but instead came into the possession of the sculptor Sir Frances Leggett Chantrey (1781–1841). In Thomson’s will it was stated that the painting was in the possession of Chantrey’s executors in 1843. That year the artist William Etty (1787–1849) claimed that the painting had been ‘left by the will of the late Sir Francis Chantrey, R.A., to be offered as a gift to a church; it was refused acceptance! It was then offered to a second church, but by both resolutely refused!!’60 As no mention of the painting is made in Chantrey’s will Etty must have been mistaken.61 It is possible, however, that both Chantrey and Chamberlayne acted as agents for Thomson in attempting to donate the painting to a church. They were evidently unsuccessful, and the work remained on Chantrey’s hands.
The three friends and another figure, James Ralph,62 had previously been involved in arranging the erection of a memorial to Chamberlayne’s sister, Charlotte Chamberlayne (d.1831). Chantrey recorded in his ledger in July 1831 that he had received, ‘an order from Ja: Ralfe Esqr. to execute a monument for Hitchen Church, Southampton in memory of Miss Chamberlayne, price 600£. This was renewed again by letter 12 Janr. 1833 and the designs were desired to be send to H. Thomson Esq. R.A.’63 Thomson’s friendship with William and Charlotte is indicated in his will which lists several items as having been formerly their property. Thomson left a miniature watercolour portrait of William Chamberlayne that he had painted and a medallion portrait of William by Chantrey to James Ralfe, who was one of his executors.64 Thomson’s high regard for the Chamberlayne family is attested by his bequeathing, ‘Unto Thomas Chamberlayne Esquire Owner of the estate at Weston Grove in the Country of Southampton as heir to the late Charlotte Chamberlayne Spinster my painting of the Raising of Jairus’s Daughter’.65
In 1843 the painting therefore seems to have gone to Weston Grove, Southampton. The house was demolished around 1940,66 and so the painting must have been moved to Cranbury Park, another property owned by the family, by then at the very latest. At the time of its purchase in 1966 the painting was reported to have been ‘stored behind the organ in the family chapel’.67 It is not known whether it had previously been hung in the chapel or elsewhere in the house. The interior was photographed for Country Life in 1954 and 1955, but none of the pictures in the magazine’s archive show the painting on display. The canvas was sold in 1966 through an advertisement in the Times newspaper to a distinguished art historian. That individual’s offer of the painting to the Tate Gallery in 1967 was declined, but the picture was accepted by the Friends of the Tate Gallery and stored at Tate. The picture had apparently been damaged when it was sent to the conservation department at the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1966 and was stored in an un-exhibitable state (most notable in a visible fold extending across the full width of the composition about a quarter of the way up the canvas) in a boiler cupboard.68 However, the frame, datable by its style and construction to around 1820–40 and therefore probably the original, was retained.69 The painting was belatedly accessioned as part of the Tate collection in 2012 and both it and the frame restored shortly thereafter to make the whole fit for display.