Catalogue entry


Recto Grey and brown wash heightened with white, 4 7/8 × 9 5/8 (12.4 × 24.5), on paper same size, edges uneven
Verso Pen and ink, (a) 2 7/8 × 4 7/8 (7.4 × 12.4); (b) 4 7/8 × 6 3/4 (12.4 × 17.1)

Purchased from Abbott and Holder (Grant-in-Aid) 1977

Studies, recto and verso (a), for the painting (47 × 78in) exhibited at the RA in 1884 (559), purchased by Sir (then Mr) Henry Tate, included in his founding gift to the Tate Gallery in 1894 and now N01541 in the collection.

Waterhouse exhibited the painting with the following note: ‘“The Oracle or Teraph was a human head, cured with spices, which was fixed against the wall, and lamps being lit before it and other rites performed, the imagination of diviners was so excited that they supposed that they heard a low voice speaking future events.”’

If this is a quotation, its source is unknown. Teraphim were the idols or images which served as objects of reverence and divination among the ancient Hebrews and other kindred peoples; the word was chiefly used (as in the Old Testament) in its plural sense, but was occasionally contracted to a singular form, as in Southey, Thalaba, II, ix: ‘Khawla to the Teraph turn'd, “Tell me where the prophet hides our destin'd enemy?”’

In his treatment of the subject, Waterhouse concentrates (as so often) on the appearance of women under stress. Seven young girls sit in a semicircle about a lamplit shrine, reacting with various emotions to the suspense of waiting while their priestess, motioning them to silence, bends her head to catch the messages of a mummified head; but whether they wait for prophecies of war or of the marriage-bed is left in doubt. The exotic ‘middle-eastern’ setting is probably imaginary, derived from somewhere between J.F. Lewis's Levant and Leighton House.

The free study on the recto of T02106 is probably Waterhouse's first conception of the subject, broadly followed in the painting. The study of the same subject on the verso is more sharply focussed, and shows some changes (such as the fact that the second girl now buries her face in her hands) which were followed in the finished painting; but the intricate patterning of stuffs and the richly ornamental decor of the painting are barely hinted at in either study.

The second study on the verso appears to depict a Grecian rather than a Hebrew priestess, and probably represents the Pythia, through whose mouth spoke the oracle at Delphi, and who answered its consultants' questions from a tripod throne. No painting by Waterhouse of this alternative oracle is known.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1976-8: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1979