Arthur Hughes

Aurora Leigh’s Dismissal of Romney (‘The Tryst’)


Not on display

Arthur Hughes 1832–1915
Oil paint on board
Support: 394 × 310 mm
frame: 526 × 438 × 42 mm
Bequeathed by Beresford Rimington Heaton 1940


Miss Ellen Heaton, a patron of Rossetti, commissioned this painting for thirty pounds on the recommendation of the critic John Ruskin, who told her that Hughes was 'quite safe - every-body will like what he does ... his sense of beauty is quite exquisite' (Surtees, p.175). The subject is taken from the narrative poem 'Aurora Leigh' (1856) by Elizabeth Barret Browning, who was a friend of Miss Heaton. Aurora, an orphan raised by her aunt, aspires to be a poetess. On the morning of her twentieth birthday she rejects a marriage proposal by her cousin Romney Leigh. She chooses to devote herself to her vocation in defiance of Romney, who disparages her verses and wants her to dedicate herself to his philanthropic causes. Aurora tells Romney that what he loves 'Is not a woman, Romney, but a cause: | You want a helpmate, not a mistress, sir. | A wife to help your ends, - in her no end!'

The painting depicts the moment when Romney has been refused and is about to take his leave. Aurora holds a book of her verses which Romney has found in the garden and made fun of. Miss Heaton and Hughes disagreed over which scene in the poem should be depicted. The patron had wanted an earlier incident, but in a letter dated 14 December 1860, Hughes said, 'The moment I chose to paint was the best - Romney turning away ... If I had not chosen that moment, the story as Romney's dismissal would I think have been confused - it would rather have seemed a quarrel of which we did not see the end nor know the cause' (Mander, p.222). Ruskin sided with the artist. Miss Heaton also wanted Aurora shown in a white dress as in the poem, but Hughes felt that a sea-green dress would better complement the landscape. He had trouble with the composition, and asked Miss Heaton in the December letter 'kindly to pay me the price of the frame 632 - separate from the thirty guineas for the painting, as it has really cost me a great deal more time than I thought such a subject would have' (Mander, pp.222-3). He painted out Romney's hat twice; the overpainting has since become transparent, and traces of the two hats can be seen. He may have used himself and his wife, Tryphena, as the models for the figures. Miss Heaton must eventually have become reconciled to the picture, as the same month she commissioned from Hughes another painting, That was a Piedmontese ... (1862, Tate Gallery N05244), which again required Ruskin's intervention to mediate between the two parties.

Aurora Leigh's Dismissal of Romney was never exhibited in Hughes's lifetime, and remained virtually undocumented and the subject unidentified until Rosalie Mander's 1964 article '"The Tryst" Unravelled', in Apollo.

Further reading:
Rosalie Mander, '"The Tryst" Unravelled', Apollo, vol.79, March 1964, pp.221-3, reproduced
Virginia Surtees (ed.), Sublime & Instructive. Letters from John Ruskin to Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, Anna Blunden and Ellen Heaton, London 1972, pp.227-9
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.189-90, reproduced in colour
Leonard Roberts, introduction by Stephen Wildman, Arthur Hughes: His Life and Works, a Catalogue Raisonné, Woodbridge, Suffolk [to be published 1997]

Terry Riggs
December 1997

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Display caption

This painting illustrates an early scene from the poem Aurora Leigh (1856) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Aurora is an aspiring poet. Her cousin Romney has proposed marriage, asking Aurora to devote herself to his philanthropic projects. She rejects him and this role of ‘helpmate’ in order to follow her vocation as a writer. Here, she holds a book of her poems that Romney has dismissed with doubts of a woman’s ability to create meaningful art. This work was commissioned by a friend of Barrett Browning, art collector Ellen Heaton.

Gallery label, August 2018

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