Joseph Severn

The Infant of the Apocalypse Saved from the Dragon

c.1827–31, 1843

Not on display

Joseph Severn 1793–1879
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 2235 × 1270 mm
frame: 2645 × 1628 × 180 mm
Purchased 1982

Catalogue entry


Oil on canvas, painted area (arched top) approx. 88 × 50 (2235 × 1270), stretcher 89 1/8 × 50 1/2 (2260 × 1285)
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov: Promised as a gift by the artist to Cardinal Thomas Weld, who however died in 1837; sold 1843 to W.E. Gladstone, sold Christie's 26 June 1875 (627, as ‘The Vision of St John in Patmos’) bt Cox;...; J. Stuart Castle; his executors, sold Phillips 9 April 1979 (118) bt Julian Hartnoll, sold anonymously Sotheby's 17 March 1982 (83, repr.) bt Tate Gallery
Exh: RA 1838 (35); Victorian Art, Sacred and Secular, Julian Hartnoll at Burlington Fine Art Fair, RA, September–October 1979 (1, repr.)
Lit: ‘Foreign Correspondence: Rome, March 1834’, Athenaeum, 5 April 1834, p.257; ‘Fine Arts: Royal Academy’, Athenaeum, 19 May 1838, p.363; Mrs [Sarah] Uwins, Memoir of Thomas Uwins, R.A., 1858, ii, pp.216, 274–5; William Sharp, Life and Letters of Joseph Severn, 1892, pp.292–3; M.R.D. Foot, The Gladstone Diaries, 1968, i 1, p.474, ii, pp.527–8, 548; Marcia Pointon, ‘W.E. Gladstone as an Art Patron and Collector’, Victorian Studies, XIX, 1975, p.94; Barbara Coffey and Julian Hartnoll in Victorian Art, Sacred and Secular, exhibition catalogue, RA 1979, no.1, repr.; William Vaughan, German Romanticism and English Art, 1979, pp.180, 283, n.13

When this picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1838 the catalogue included a reference to Revelation XII, and continued, ‘A study for a large altarpiece, presented by the late Cardinald [sic] Weld to the Church of St. Paul at Rome’. In Chapter XII of ‘The Revelation of St. John the Divine’, who is shown writing down his account of his vision on the Island of Patmos, the ‘woman clothed with the sun’ gives birth to ‘a man child, who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron’ while the ‘great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads’ waits ‘to devour her child as soon as it was born’. The chapter also mentions the war in heaven in which Michael and his angels fight against the dragon; Michael's host is suggested in the sky at the left. However, the chaining of the dragon does not take place until Chapter XX. The eagle at St John's feet is his traditional symbol.

The story of Severn's altarpiece filled much of his first stay in Rome, from his arrival with John Keats in 1820 until he returned and took up residence in London in 1841. The project is first mentioned in a letter from Severn to Thomas Uwins of 10 November 1827: ‘you must be content with also hearing that my not twenty but fifteen feet of the Revelations is making, and I am employed at night in making a large drawing of it; so, please my stars, I shall soon begin’. It is not clear whether by this ‘drawing’ Severn meant an actual drawing or the laying in of the modello now in the Tate. Severn's own account, printed by William Sharp, gives the next stage in the story. The newly created Cardinal Weld (his creation took place in March 1830) helped Severn over a law suit and while doing so ‘had seen the sketch several times and greatly admired it, and he had known my intention of doing it on the large scale, indeed of having actually begun it’. He then commissioned a full-scale version, apparently already with the intention of placing it in the Church of San Paolo fuori le Mure, though an account in the Athenaeum reporting events in Rome in March 1834 suggests another destination: ‘I have seen the abozzo of Severn's altarpiece. Did I tell you Cardinal Weld has given the commission, and that the picture may be enshrined in no lesser place than the Pantheon?’ (The report goes on to praise the upper part of the composition while criticising the lower: ‘conception feeble - arrangement monotonous’.) No price was mentioned which caused trouble later on as Cardinal Weld died before Severn succeeded in placing his altarpiece in San Paolo. As a foreigner and a non-Catholic Severn encountered every form of opposition, above all from the Roman painter Baron Cammucini. Finally, with the help of the architect in charge of the rebuilding of the church, still not complete, after the devastating fire of 1823, Severn succeeded in 1840 in hanging the altarpiece in a bricked-up archway. Although he realised that this was only a temporary solution he returned to England with his family the following year. When the church was consecrated in 1854, Severn's altarpiece was said to be awaiting a new site in one of the side chapels of the nave, but when Krzysztof Cieszkowski of the Tate Gallery library visited the church in 1983 he was told that the altarpiece was rolled up in an outbuilding. (The full text of Severn's own account of his problems, a separate chapter in his manuscript ‘Incidents of my Life’, is given as an appendix in William Sharp's Life and Letters, pp.293–301.)

Severn had planned to give the half-size modello as a thank-offering to Cardinal Weld but this was prevented by the Cardinal's death in 1837. The young W.E. Gladstone had admired the unfinished altarpiece or the modello in Severn's studio sometime during April 1832, noting in his diary, ‘a very large picture “the chaining of the dragon from the Revelations”’. In 1838 Gladstone was again in Rome and again saw the altar-piece in Severn's studio, noting in his diary that ‘the Chaining of the Dragon is a great object of interest: a bold effort, a new subject, finely conceived and executed ...The picture has caused much jealousy, as it is to go to a Chapel in San Paolo, a present from Cardinal Weld to the Pope’. The modello was already in England having been shown at the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. In 1843 Severn, back in England, offered Gladstone ‘the large study of the Roman Altar-piece’. Gladstone sent Severn an advance of £50 and left him the choice of the work, provided that Cardinal Weld's heirs did not claim it which they did not. On 12 April 1843 Severn said that he would like to do more to the picture as ‘In this way I feel sure I can make it a finished work and more worthy of the esteem you are pleased to honour it with’. On 22 June, after Gladstone had bought the picture for a total of £80, Severn wrote that ‘I have got the traced drawing of the large picture and will bring it to judge of the Angel's arm and correct it’, which suggests that he did do some further work on the modello at this time. However, the picture remains thinly painted in many places, with the pencil under-drawing showing through. (This entry is largely based on that in the Victorian Art catalogue of 1979 by Barbara Coffey and Julian Hartnoll.)

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1982-84: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1986

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