Arthur Hughes

The Eve of St Agnes


Not on display

Arthur Hughes 1832–1915
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 710 × 1245 mm
frame: 1010 × 1545 × 100 mm
Bequeathed by Mrs Emily Toms in memory of her father, Joseph Kershaw 1931


The prototype for this work was William Holman Hunt's 1848 painting, The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry (The Eve of St Agnes) (Guildhall Art Gallery, Corporation of London), based on Keats's Eve of St Agnes (published 1820). Hughes's triptych depicts three scenes from Keats's poem: Porphyro's approach to the castle (left), the awakening of Madeline (centre), and the lovers' stealthy escape over the drunken porter (right). The following lines from the poem are written in paint at the bottom of the original gold frame:

They told her how, upon St Agnes' Eve,
Young virgins might have visions of delight,
And soft adorings from their loves receive
Upon the honey'd middle of the night.
If ceremonies due they did aright,
And supperless to bed they must retire,
And couch supine their beauties lily white,
Nor look behind, nor sideways, but require
Of heaven with upward eyes for all that they desire.
Although painted on one canvas, each of the three scenes has been signed and dated. A small, undated oil version of the composition exists in three sections, mounted as a triptych (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). The Ashmolean version is similar in composition to the Tate's painting, with the exception of the left scene. The Ashmolean triptych portrays a later incident, that of Porphyro's meeting with the aged Angela at the portal doors.

When this picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, the critic John Ruskin wrote of it in his Academy Notes, 'A noble picture, apparently too hastily finished, and very wrongly put into this room ... The half-entranced, half-startled, face of the awakening Madeline is exquisite'(Cook and Wedderburn, eds., The Works of John Ruskin, XIV, London 1904, p.70). Rossetti felt that the picture would 'make [Hughes's] fortune' (letter from Rossetti to William Allingham, quoted in O. Doughty and J.R. Wahl, eds., Letters of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, I, Oxford 1965, p.300).

Further reading:
Timothy Hilton, The Pre-Raphaelites, London 1970, pp.113-15, reproduced
Leonard Roberts, introduction by Stephen Wildman, Arthur Hughes: His Life and Works, a Catalogue Raisonné, Woodbridge, Suffolk [to be published 1997]

Terry Riggs
November 1997

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Display caption

This work was based on John Keats's poem The Eve of St Agnes (1820), inspired by the folk belief that a woman can see her future husband in a dream if she performs certain rites the day before the feast of St. Agnes, the patron saint of virgins. The frame is inscribed with the fourth verse of the poem, which sets the scene for the three episodes which Hughes depicts. First, Porphyro defies Madeleine’s family to approach the castle, where a banquet is in progress. He then awakens Madeline from her dreams. Finally, the lovers silently escape from the dark castle into the night. 

Gallery label, March 2022

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