Augustus Leopold Egg

Past and Present, No. 3


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Augustus Leopold Egg 1816–1863
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 635 × 762 mm
frame: 781 × 925 × 90 mm
Presented by Sir Alec and Lady Martin in memory of their daughter Nora 1918


This is the third of a set of three modern-life pictures on the theme of the fallen woman. The other two (N03278 and N03279) are also in the Tate collection. They are typical of the social moralist pictures that were popular in Victorian art.

The theme of the triptych is the discovery of the woman's infidelity and its consequences. In the first scene the family are still together, and the husband has just learned of his wife's adultery. The second scene takes place five years later. The father has recently died and the mother has been driven out of her home, a fallen woman. The two orphaned girls comfort each other, the elder gazing sadly over the rooftops towards the moon. In this third picture the moon occupies the same position in the sky, indicating that the scene is taking place at the same time. The children's mother, now destitute, has taken refuge under one of the Adelphi arches, described by the Art Journal as 'the lowest of all the profound deeps of human abandonment in this metropolis' (quoted in Wood, p.53). Under her shawl she shelters a young child, clearly the result of her adulterous affair, which is now over. Directly behind her a poster advertises two plays at the Haymarket Theatre, Victims and The Cure for Love; another announces 'Pleasure Excursions to Paris'.

When the set of pictures was first shown at the Royal Academy in 1858, the drawing-room scene was hung between the other two. They were exhibited with no title, but with this subtitle, 'August the 4th - Have just heard that B - has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!'

Egg's pictures demonstrate how in Victorian England the full weight of the moral code fell upon women. A man could safely take a mistress without fear of recrimination, but for a woman to be unfaithful was an unforgivable crime. As Caroline Norton, an early feminist, wrote, 'the faults of women are visited as sins, the sins of men are not even visited as faults' (quoted in Lambourne, p.374).

Further reading:
Lionel Lambourne, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.374-5, reproduced p.377, in colour.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.52-3, reproduced p.53, in colour.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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The final scene in this series is set under the Adelphi arches, by the River Thames in London. A woman shelters her young child, having been made to leave the family home following an affair. The posters behind her advertise two plays – Victims and A Cure for Love – and Pleasure Excursions to Paris. These are ironic comments on her situation. In Victorian Britain, an affair was far more serious for a woman than a man. During debates about divorce in 1857, the Lord Chancellor testified that a ‘wife might …condone an act of adultery on the part of the husband; but a husband could not condone a similar act on the part of a wife’.

Gallery label, August 2019

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