John Hamilton Mortimer

Sir Arthegal, the Knight of Justice, with Talus, the Iron Man (from Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’)

exhibited 1778

Not on display

John Hamilton Mortimer 1740–1779
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2426 × 1460 mm
Purchased 1976

Display caption

This painting refers to the courtly fantasy of British origins prevalent in the Elizabethan age and the seventeenth century. It illustrates Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queene 1590/6, a poem that claims Elizabeth I as heir to King Arthur’s British kingdom.

Arthegal was one of the Queene’s knights, trained by the immortal Astraea to be the champion of True Justice. She gave him the invincible sword, Chrysaor, which he holds here. Behind him is Talus, his squire. Talus was a man ‘made of iron mould, immoveable, resistlesse’. He carries an iron flail with which he threshes out falsehood.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, 93 1/2 × 57 1/2 (236.5 × 146)
Purchased from Somerville and Simpson Ltd. (Grant-in-Aid) 1976
Prov: by descent in the family of Charles Smith Mortimer, the artist's elder brother (but see below), to Mrs. Hollams, c. 1915–16, and T.R.G. Lawrence, by whom sold Crewkerne Salerooms, 29 April 1976 (310) bt. Somerville and Simpson.
Exh: RA 1778 (207); BI 1806 (Middle Room 19); ? Deceased British Artists, BI 1817 (40, as ‘Sir Artegal, the Iron Man, from Spenser’, lent Sir T. Bernard, Bart.).
Lit: ‘Notable Works of Art now on the Market’, Advertisement Supplement to Burlington Magazine, CXVII, June 1976, pl.XXX.

Artegall, to use Spenser's original spelling, is the protagonist of the Fifth Book of The Faerie Queene. ‘The Champion of true Justice’, taught ‘all the depth of rightfull doome’ by ‘faire Astraea’, is shown holding the sword she gave him, called Chrysaor. Behind Artegall stands Astraea's groom Talus, ‘An yron man’, with his ‘yron blade ... With which he thresht out falshood, and did truth unfold’.

The painting was well received at the Royal Academy exhibition of 1778. For the General Advertiser of 28 April it was ‘a most vigorous representation of fancy’. After praising the main figure, the composition and the lighting, the reviewer concludes ‘the artist has found his tone of colouring very serviceable’. This contradicted the Morning Chronicle of the day before which, though describing ‘Sir Arthegal’ as ‘a fine picture’, went on to say that ‘like all the large paintings of Mr Mortimer’, it had ‘a remarkable clayiness of colouring’. The Morning Post, also of 27 April, stated that ‘It is a very good painting. It is very precisely descriptive of the figure it is intended to represent. The attitude is bold, and finely drawn; an excellence for which this artist is distinguished to a degree which justly intitles [sic] him to the appellation of the English Salvator’ (Salvator Rosa).

The name of the lender to the 1817 British Institution exhibition is given as Sir T. Bernard, Bart., which would break the otherwise continuous provenance in the artist's family. However, this may be a mistake in anticipation of the lender of the next item in the catalogue, 41, ‘The Presentation in the Temple’ by Opie. Other Mortimers in the exhibition were lent by Mrs Mortimer and by J. W. Steers, Esq.

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

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