George Elgar Hicks

Woman’s Mission: Comfort of Old Age

1862

In Tate Britain

Artist
George Elgar Hicks 1824–1914
Medium
Oil paint on canvas
Dimensions
Support: 762 × 638 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2014
Reference
T14037

Summary

Woman’s Mission: Comfort of Old Age 1862 is the final scene in George Elgar Hicks’s triptych Woman’s Mission. It depicts a young woman tending to an old man seated in an armchair, covered by a blanket with his head resting on a pillow. Hicks designed, exhibited and sold Woman’s Mission as a triptych: ‘a tableaux set in one frame’ to quote the Art Journal in 1863 (1 June, p.111). Rather than being seen in isolation, the three pictures were meant to complement and reinforce each other so as to present the impression of a single work of art. This may help to explain why the final picture has an earlier date than the middle one, Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood 1863, which is also in Tate’s collection (Tate T00397). In its triptych format Hicks’s Woman’s Mission differs from Augustus Egg’s (1816–1863) slightly earlier trilogy Past and Present 1858 (Tate N03278N03280) in that the different sections were actually framed together rather than being simply designed to hang side-by-side to form a narrative. This practice deliberately recalls the structure of religious altarpieces and was intended to instil in the spectator a sense of reverence for the sacred aspects of womanhood set out in the images themselves.

The three pictures that comprise the triptych collectively present maternal, conjugal and filial love, showing three episodes from a woman’s life as mother, wife and daughter, and are accordingly subtitled Guide of Childhood, Companion of Manhood and Comfort of Old Age. The triptych was first exhibited at the Royal Academy, London in 1863 where it was admired by the critic of the Art Journal among others for its exquisite polish and refined but not overly profound sentiment, which the writer felt was appropriate for the modest category of domestic art into which it fell. The scenes were described as follows:

In the first, a young mother is leading her child tenderly along a woodland path, turning aside a mischievous bramble which besets his steps … In the second, we see a wife in the act of giving solace to her husband under a severe blow of affliction. The last scene of all, that ends life’s strange, eventful history – Mr Hicks’s third age, and Shakespere’s [sic] seventh – is a dying father, sedulously watched and waited on by a daughter’s affection.
(Art Journal, 1 June 1863, p.111.)

It has been suggested that the final scene might have had personal significance for the artist as Hicks’s own father died in 1861, the year before this section of the triptych was completed. The woman in the painting also bears a striking resemblance to Hicks’s wife, Maria, as depicted by the artist in a watercolour portrait of his family dating from 1857 (sold at Bonhams, London, 2 April 2008, lot no.31).

The ‘comfort’ that forms the subject of this final painting is emphasised by the gentle raised arm movements that unite father and daughter in the middle of the composition. The tenderness of the daughter’s ministrations is underscored by the delicate rose and white colour scheme as well as through carefully observed details such as the lacework on her shawl and the neat stitched edges of the blanket that wraps the patient as he feebly accepts a drink. Touches of bright colour, including a madder cravat and the red reflections of a fire burning beyond the edge of the picture, add a hint of warmth to the scene. In the centre rests a leather-bound hinged Bible suggesting that the earthly comfort represented by the woman derives from a divine source, offered by the ‘God of all Comfort’ (2 Corinthians 1:3–4).

At the time of its first appearance in public, critics felt that the religious overtones suggested by the triptych format were somewhat undermined by the artist’s pretty, ‘feminine’ treatment of form, comparable to illustrations in a fashion book. Today such qualities are generally seen to embody the prevailing view of women in mid-nineteenth-century Britain as ‘ministering angels’, as described by Coventry Patmore in his popular poem The Angel in the House (1854–63). In terms of its sentiment the picture also anticipates John Ruskin’s view of the ideal relationship between men and women, set out in his essay ‘Of Queen’s Gardens’ published in Sesame and Lilies in 1865. Here woman is located in the home – a sphere of life and work separate to that of man – her chief occupation being to provide physical and spiritual comfort, and to find fulfilment through selflessness and servitude. Indeed, the attention given by Hicks to costume and accoutrement would seem to highlight a seamless association between women and the domestic environment.

More recently, art historians and literary scholars have used Woman’s Mission to explore tensions between the ideal of femininity set out in the painting and women’s real place in society. In her publication Myths of Sexuality (1988), Lynda Nead focused on the critical reception of the work to show how pictures displayed at public exhibition helped generate debate about gender roles, reinforcing and contradicting ideas circulating elsewhere in society about normative and transgressive forms of female and male behaviour. Noting the universal currency of the term ‘woman’s mission’ in Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, Nead considered how the womanly ideal encapsulated in Hicks’s triptych was used to promote an essentialist idea of respectable femininity, implicitly marking out as deviant any behaviour that fell short of this standard (Lynda Nead, Myths of Sexuality: Representations of Women in Victorian Britain, Oxford 1988, pp.12–23).

Although Hicks is remembered today chiefly as a painter of large-scale panoramas of modern life, such as Dividend Day, Bank of England 1859 (Bank of England) and The General Post Office, One Minute to Six 1860 (Museum of London), in fact the majority of his works were smaller-scale domestic pictures which were very much in vogue during the period. Seen to epitomise the national character of the English school by virtue of their affective qualities and moral sentiment, the production of this kind of picture was actively encouraged by influential dealers such as Louis Victor Flatow (1820–1867), who purchased Woman’s Mission from the artist.

Although the central and final panels of Woman’s Mission are in Tate’s collection, the current whereabouts of the first panel are unknown. The central panel has been in Tate’s collection since 1960, when it was presented by David Barclay; the final panel was acquired by purchase in 2014. It would appear that the triptych remained intact until at least 1873, when it was offered at auction by Christie’s, London as ‘three pictures in one frame’, but at some point after this date the triptych was broken up and the paintings dispersed.

Further reading
James Dafforne, ‘British Artists, their Style and Character: George Elgar Hicks’, Art Journal, 1 April 1872, p.98.
Rosamond Allwood, George Elgar Hicks: Painter of Victorian Life, exhibition catalogue, Geffrye Museum, London 1982.
Kendall Smalling Wood, ‘“Holy Families” and “Household Gods”: The Conception and Representation of the Domestic in Nineteenth-Century British Visual Culture’, unpublished PhD Thesis, University of London 2011.

Alison Smith
November 2013

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

These two paintings make up two scenes in a triptych (three-part picture) called Woman’s Mission which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863. The missing section is Guide of Childhood. As a group the pictures represent the same woman in her role as mother, wife and attentive daughter or, as one critic of the time put it: ‘woman in three phases of her duties as ministering angel’. The woman in both pictures bears a striking resemblance to the artist’s depictions of his own wife, Maria.

Gallery label, November 2016

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

You might like