James Ward

The Moment


Not on display

James Ward 1769–1859
Oil paint on wood
Support: 367 × 466 mm
frame: 510 × 605 mm
Purchased 1982

Display caption

This painting of a huge snake about to attack a white horse was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1833. In the past, the painting was thought to show Napoleon’s Arab charger, Marengo – hence the title ‘Marengo and the Serpent’ on the frame. However, it is more likely to show George III’s horse, Adonis. Although he specialised in painting animals, Ward consistently used allegory in his paintings, so this work may be intended to show the power of the monarchy (the horse) being threatened by the government (the serpent) as it prepared to widen the franchise by passing the Great Reform Bill in 1832.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Catalogue entry

T03440 THE MOMENT 1831

Oil on panel 14 × 18 5/16 (367 × 466)
Inscribed ‘J WARD [in monogram] RA. 1831’ b.r.
Purchased (Grant-in-Aid) 1982
Prov: ...; anon. sale, Christie's 24 June 1977 (114 as ‘Marengo and the Serpent’, repr.) £6,000 bt anon.;...; Mrs E. Riley Smith, sold Sotheby's 7 July 1982 (125 as ‘Marengo and the Serpent’, repr. in col.) £8,800 bt for the Tate Gallery
Exh: RA 1833 (150)
Lit: Edward J. Nygren, The Art of James Ward, R.A., 1769–1854, unpublished dissertation, Yale University, 1976, pp.28–34, 79–84

Although this picture has most recently been known as ‘Marengo and the Serpent’ there seems little doubt that it can be identified as ‘The Moment’ - a painting which was exhibited at the Royal Academy and which was described by one critic as representing ‘a huge snake on the point of attacking a white horse, whose attitude exhibits the fear so formidable an adversary might be supposed to inspire’ (New Sporting Magazine, V, no. 26, 1833, p.134; the compiler is grateful to Edward J. Nygren for supplying this reference).

The former, incorrect, title was undoubtedly given to the work because there are obvious similarities between it and Ward's portrait of the grey Arab ‘Marengo’ (the charger ridden by Napoleon at Waterloo) which was painted in 1824 and which is now in the collection of the Duke of Northumberland; the picture is best known through a lithograph published by Ackermann but Ward also repeated the subject in a painting of 1829 (London art market 1965).

However, unlike ‘Marengo’, ‘The Moment’ depicts a terrifying confrontation between a horse and a snake and it is thus clearly related to a number of other paintings by Ward which treat the same subject and which use, as a model for the horse, ‘Adonis’, the charger which belonged to King George III (1738–1820) and not Napoleon's ‘Marengo’. The first of these was the life-size ‘Liboya Serpent Seizing its Prey’ exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1803 (now lost but a large study was formerly in the collection of the Dowager Duchess of Sutherland) and then Ward returned to the theme in 1822, but this time identifying the horse (which is the same as that in the 1803 picture) in a so-called ‘study for a large picture’ entitled ‘The Boa Serpent seizing a horse, portrait of “Adonis”, the favourite charger of his late Majesty, George the Third’ (whereabouts unknown). A drawing of ‘Adonis’ by Ward of c.1803, now in the British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, can, in conjunction with an inscription on the back of the mount and a statement made in a letter of 11 November 1843 which Ward wrote to Thomas Garle (also British Museum, Department of Prints and Drawings, 167, a.41), be identified as the original sketch on which the artist based the horses in the pictures of both 1803 and 1822 as well as that in T03440.

Although compositionally far less complicated than either ‘The Liboya Serpent’ or, as far as one can deduce, ‘The Boa Serpent seizing a horse’, ‘The Moment’ does nevertheless still possess the iconographic complexity which characterizes these works. The image of a serpent or snake, traditionally associated with, among other things, evil and tyranny, about to strike a white horse has immediately obvious connotations. In the case of ‘The Liboya Serpent’ Nygren has convincingly suggested that the work is an allegory against the slave trade. Given Ward's consistent use of allegory in his animal paintings it is difficult not to see in ‘The Moment’, which returns to a theme which in its previous treatments had powerful nationalistic and historical overtones, some sort of commentary by the artist on contemporary events. In 1831, the date on the painting, such a commentary could probably only refer to the agitation in the country which accompanied the debates on the first two Reform Bills in the House of Commons. For the conservatively inclined Ward, as for many others, the prospect of a reform, sustained by vehement, popular support, which changed the character of Parliament and extended the franchise, was to have the very constitution threatened and most likely destroyed by the tyranny of radicalism and revolution. It is quite conceivable that ‘The Moment’, with the serpent poised for the kill before ‘Adonis’, by now associated in Ward's mind with the monarchy and all it stands for, is an allegory of these events. The First Reform Act was eventually passed by the Lords on 4 June 1832 - George III's birthday.

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

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