Henry Wallis, ‘Chatterton’ 1856
Henry Wallis, Chatterton 1856 . Tate

Room 7 in Walk Through British Art

1840

12 rooms in Walk Through British Art

Ophelia

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, Ophelia  1851–2

Shakespeare was a popular source of inspiration for Victorian painters. This work depicts the death of Ophelia from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Overwhelmed by grief when Hamlet murders her father, Ophelia falls into a stream and drowns. The flowers she holds are symbolic: the poppy signifies death, daisies innocence and pansies thoughts. When it was painted, it was regarded as one of the most accurate studies of nature ever made. Millais painted the background from life by the Hogsmill River in Surrey. Artist, poet and model Elizabeth Siddall posed for Ophelia in a bath of water at Millais's London studio. The water was kept warm by lamps underneath, although this did not stop her falling ill for a short period due to the cold.

Gallery label, November 2019

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Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

John Singer Sargent, Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose  1885–6

This painting is set in a garden in the Cotswolds village of Broadway, where John Singer Sargent stayed in the summer of 1885. The children lighting Japanese lanterns with tapers are Dolly (left) and Polly Barnard. Their father was the illustrator Frederick Barnard – a friend of Sargent’s. Sargent wanted to capture the exact level of light at dusk so he painted the picture out of doors, in the impressionist manner. As autumn came and the flowers died he resorted to painting flowers in pots. The title comes from the refrain of a popular song The Wreath by Joseph Mazzinghi.

Gallery label, November 2016

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The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Richard Dadd, The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke  1855–64

Richard Dadd painted this work for an official at Bethlem Hospital (now the Imperial War Museum) where he was sent after murdering his father and declared mentally ill.

The scene shows a number of different characters including figures thought to represent the Pope and Dadd’s own father. In the centre is the ‘fairy-feller’, about to split a large chestnut which will be used to construct a new carriage for Queen Mab, a fairy mentioned in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The picture is painted in great detail. Dadd worked on it for between six and nine years.

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The Doctor

Sir Luke Fildes, The Doctor  exhibited 1891

This painting was inspired by the death of the artist’s son and the professional care of Dr Gustavus Murray who treated him. But this work shows the moment when a child shows the first sign of recovery. The light of dawn filters through the shutters behind the anxious parents who have sat up all night. In order to make the picture convincing, Fildes constructed a cottage interior in his studio and began work at dawn each day to catch the exact light effect. The image of an ordinary doctor’s quiet heroism was a huge success with the public.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Proserpine

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Proserpine  1874

In the classical myth Proserpine was kidnapped by Pluto, the god of the underworld, to be his wife. Eating food from the underworld would cause a living person to stay there forever. Proserpine ate six pomegranate seeds, and so Pluto confined her to his kingdom six months of each year. She is shown here eating a pomegranate which symbolises captivity. Jane Morris (née Burden) modelled for Proserpine. She was an embroiderer and artist’s model who was married to Rossetti’s friend William Morris and was also Rossetti’s lover.

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Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’)

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’)  1849–50

This picture was exhibited with words from the Old Testament, often seen as prefiguring Christ’s Crucifixion: ‘And one shall say unto him, What are these wounds in thine hands? Then shall he answer. Those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends.’ Millais based the setting on a real carpenter’s shop. Symbols of the Crucifixion figure prominently: the wood, the nails, the cut in Christ’s hand and the blood on his foot. Millais was viciously attacked in the press for showing the holy family as ‘ordinary’. Charles Dickens described Christ as ‘a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-haired boy in a night-gown.’

Gallery label, November 2016

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Hope

George Frederic Watts and assistants, Hope  1886

Traditionally the figure of Hope is represented by an anchor. Seeking a more original approach to symbolism and allegory, Watts shows her blindfolded, seated on a globe and playing a lyre of which all the strings are broken except one. Hope’s attempt to make music appears futile and several critics argued that the work might have been more appropriately titled Despair. Watts explained that ‘Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord’.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Chatterton

Henry Wallis, Chatterton  1856

This highly romanticised picture created a sensation when it was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856. Thomas Chatterton was a poet whose ‘gothic’ writings, melancholy life and youthful suicide fascinated artists and writers of the 19th century. At an early age, he wrote fake medieval histories and poems, which he copied onto old parchment and passed off as manuscripts from the Middle Ages. The fraud was later discovered. In London he struggled to earn a living writing tales and songs for popular publications. Penniless, he took his own life by swallowing arsenic at the age of 17.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Past and Present, No. 1

Augustus Leopold Egg, Past and Present, No. 1  1858

This is the first scene in a series of three on the consequences of having an affair. A woman lies at her husband’s feet. He holds a letter, which tells of her affair, and stamps on a portrait miniature of her lover. On the left, the house of cards collapses, signifying the breakdown of the family unit. Beneath the cards is a novel by the French writer Balzac, famous for his tales of adultery. The apple in the centre has been cut in two. One half, representing the wife, has fallen to the floor. The other, representing the husband, has been stabbed with a knife.

Gallery label, August 2019

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Mariana

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, Mariana  1851

Mariana is a character from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure. Her fiancé Angelo leaves after her family’s money is lost in a shipwreck. Still in love with him, she hopes they will be reunited. Here Millais shows Mariana pausing to stretch her back after working at some embroidery. Autumn leaves scattered on the ground suggest the passage of time. The painting was originally exhibited with lines from Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘Mariana’: “She only said, ‘My life is dreary – He cometh not!’ she said; She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary – I would that I were dead!’”

Gallery label, July 2019

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Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth  1889

The famous actress, Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928), is shown here in the role of Lady Macbeth. At the first performance in 1888, Sargent was struck by Terry's appearance and persuaded her to sit for a portrait. He invented her dramatic pose, which did not occur in the production. Oscar Wilde, who saw Terry's arrival at Sargent's Chelsea studio, remarked, 'The street that on a wet and dreary morning has vouchsafed the vision of Lady Macbeth in full regalia magnificently seated in a four-wheeler can never again be as other streets: it must always be full of wonderful possibilities.'

Gallery label, August 2004

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Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge  c.1872–5

Whistler preferred the calm of the River Thames at night compared to the noise and bustle of the day. Setting off on a boat at twilight, he sometimes stayed on the river all night, sketching and memorising the scene. He would later paint from memory in his studio. Here, London’s Battersea Bridge can be seen in the foreground. Chelsea Church and the lights of the newly-built Albert Bridge are visible in the distance. Whistler explained ‘I did not intend to paint a portrait of the bridge, but only a painting of a moonlight scene ... My whole scheme was only to bring about a certain harmony of colour’.

Gallery label, April 2019

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The Plains of Heaven

John Martin, The Plains of Heaven  1851–3

This is one of three paintings painted by Martin inspired by the Book of Revelation, the other two being The Last Judgement and The Great Day of His Wrath. All three depict scenes following the end of the world, in this case a vision of a new heaven and earth ‘coming down from God out of Heaven prepared as a bride is adorned for her husband’. Following their first exhibition in London in 1853, the paintings were continually on tour, appearing in theatres, music halls, commercial and civic spaces across Britain and beyond.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl  1864

Whistler’s aim was for viewers to appreciate this painting’s design, colour and mood. He did not supply a story to accompany the scene. Artist Joanna Hiffernan, Whistler’s lover, was the model and it was painted at Whistler’s house in Chelsea, London. Whistler’s interest in Japanese design and culture influenced the composition and the selection of objects, such as the fan and porcelain vase. The painting inspired the poet Algernon Swinburne to write ‘Before the Mirror’ and the poem was pasted onto the original frame.

Gallery label, August 2018

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The Girlhood of Mary Virgin

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Girlhood of Mary Virgin  1848–9

Christ’s mother Mary (modelled by Rosetti’s sister, Christina) is shown here as a girl. She works on an embroidery with her mother (portrayed by Rosetti’s mother, Frances). In the background, Mary’s father is shown pruning a vine. The painting is full of Christian symbolism. The palm branch and thorn on the floor represent Christ. The books symbolise hope, faith and charity. The dove signifies the Holy Spirit. Rossetti completed this painting when he was 20 years old. It was the first picture to be exhibited with the initials ‘PRB’. This stood for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a secret society of young artists founded in London in 1848.

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The Derby Day

William Powell Frith, The Derby Day  1856–8

The Derby Day was first exhibited in 1858 at the Royal Academy in London. It was so popular that a barrier had to be put up to protect the work. The annual Derby at Epsom Downs racecourse in Surrey, south-east England attracted huge crowds. Frith’s detailed panorama focuses on the day’s entertainment, relegating the racing to the margins. On the left, a group of men in top hats bet on a game-playing ‘trickster’. In the centre, a crowd of bare-footed children watches an acrobat and his son. Behind them are carriages filled with racegoers enjoying Derby day.

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The Beloved (‘The Bride’)

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Beloved (‘The Bride’)  1865–6

This work is inspired by the biblical Song of Solomon. It tells the story of a young woman preparing to marry. Rossetti shows her lifting a veil from her face, her eyes fixed directly on the viewer. The bride is surrounded by her attendants. In the foreground is a young Black child, holding roses. The women around the bride appear to have darker skin and hair than she does. Some modern commentators suggest that Rossetti is celebrating beauty and diversity. Others see it as racist, and argue that it imposes white standards of beauty, positioning the bride as superior due to the colour of her skin.

Gallery label, June 2019

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King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid  1884

This work was based on Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Beggar Maid’. King Cophetua of Ethiopia falls in love with Penelophon, a young woman he sees begging for money. They marry, and she becomes Queen. This work was considered Burne-Jones’s greatest achievement. Critics praised it for its technical skill and for the message that love is more important than wealth and power. Through this painting and its reproduction as a print, Burne-Jones became seen in Europe as the most important symbolist painter of his generation.

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The First Cloud

Sir William Quiller Orchardson, The First Cloud  1887

This is the last of three paintings by William Orchardson on the subject of an unhappy marriage. The empty space of the parquet floor emphasises the psychological tension between the couple. It suggests that their dispute might lead to more serious problems. When it was first exhibited these lines from a Tennyson’s poem Merlin and Vivien were published in the catalogue: ‘It is the little rift within the lute, That by and by will make the music mute’.

Gallery label, November 2016

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artworks in 1840

The Flight out of Egypt

Richard Dadd, The Flight out of Egypt  1849–50

In the early 1840s Richard Dadd accompanied Sir Thomas Phillips on a long tour of the Middle East as a travelling artist. On his return he showed signs of mental disturbance and murdered his father, claiming he was under the influence of the Egyptian god Osiris. Untitled by the artist, this painting is an assemblage of some of the scenes he encountered. In a letter of 1842, Dadd revealed his elation and confusion: ‘the excitement of these scenes has been enough to turn the brain of an ordinary weak-minded person like myself, and often I have lain down at night with my imagination so full of wild vagaries that I have really and truly doubted my own sanity.’

Gallery label, November 2016

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Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood

George Elgar Hicks, Woman’s Mission: Companion of Manhood  1863

These two paintings make up two scenes in a triptych (three-part picture) called Woman’s Mission which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1863. The missing section is Guide of Childhood. As a group the pictures represent the same woman in her role as mother, wife and attentive daughter or, as one critic of the time put it: ‘woman in three phases of her duties as ministering angel’. The woman in both pictures bears a striking resemblance to the artist’s depictions of his own wife, Maria.

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Past and Present, No. 3

Augustus Leopold Egg, Past and Present, No. 3  1858

The final scene in this series is set under the Adelphi arches, by the River Thames in London. A woman shelters her young child, having been made to leave the family home following an affair. The posters behind her advertise two plays – Victims and A Cure for Love – and Pleasure Excursions to Paris. These are ironic comments on her situation. In Victorian Britain, an affair was far more serious for a woman than a man. During debates about divorce in 1857, the Lord Chancellor testified that a ‘wife might …condone an act of adultery on the part of the husband; but a husband could not condone a similar act on the part of a wife’.

Gallery label, August 2019

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An Athlete Wrestling with a Python

Frederic, Lord Leighton, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python  1877

This is the earlier of Frederic Leighton’s only two life-size sculptures, both made with the assistance of Thomas Brock. In subject and scale it was intended as a challenge to one of the greatest classical sculptures, The Laocoön, which shows three men being crushed by sea serpents. Frederic Leighton was a pioneer of what became known as the ‘New Sculpture’ movement in Britain. This fresh approach looked back to classical sculpture while focusing on the naturalism of the body through careful modelling of the surface. This coincided with a revival of interest in bronze, the lost wax technique used here allowing for precision in the treatment of form.

Gallery label, November 2016

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Our English Coasts, 1852 (‘Strayed Sheep’)

William Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts, 1852 (‘Strayed Sheep’)  1852

The location shown in this painting is the Lovers’ Seat, an idyllic spot at Fairlight Glen near Hastings in Sussex. Hunt laboured here from mid-August to December 1852, enduring rain, wind and bitter cold to master his view. Despite the changes in weather, the painting seems a credible replication of particular illuminated moment. The colours used to convey light are daringly juxtaposed in order to intensify the clarity of every surface, a method that astounded audiences on both sides of the Channel.

Gallery label, November 2016

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artworks in 1840

April Love

Arthur Hughes, April Love  1855–6

Hughes’s painting shows a moment of tension between a young couple. The woman turns away from the barely visible male figure, bent over her left hand. Like many Victorian artists, Hughes used the language of flowers in his work. The overgrown ivy that also decorates the frame signifies loyalty and eternal life, and roses, love. The petals strewn on the floor may reflect that the love affair has been strained, but the ivy suggests a positive outcome. It is thought that Tryphena Ford modelled for the painting. Hughes married Ford, ‘his early and only love’, in 1855, the year he made this painting.

Gallery label, November 2019

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artworks in 1840

The Reading Girl

Théodore Roussel, The Reading Girl  1886–7

Though based in Britain from 1870, Roussel was French, and this composition shows a debt to the fashion for Oriental art that swept France in the 1860s. The nude model, Hetty Pettigrew, provides the key element in Roussel's bold pictorial design. Her diagonal placing effectively cuts the square canvas in half, creating equal areas of light and dark. Roussel uses naturalistically painted detail to decorative effect. The luminosity of the model's skin tone is echoed by the peach fabric of the kimono, and is dramatically opposed to the blackness of the setting. In the opinion of Roussel's contemporary, the painter Sir William Orpen, this was the finest nude painting of his time.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Past and Present, No. 2

Augustus Leopold Egg, Past and Present, No. 2  1858

Art critic John Ruskin wrote about this triptych (a work divided into three parts): ‘the husband discovers his wife’s infidelity; he dies five years afterwards.’ He noted that this scene and Past and Present, No. 3 ‘represent the same moment of night a fortnight after his death. The same little cloud is under the moon.’ The two children are shown in their bedroom, with portraits of their parents on either side. They appear to be comforting each other, their father having recently died and their mother having been made to leave the family home following her affair.

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The Golden Stairs

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, The Golden Stairs  1880

This painting is an example of Burne-Jones’s interest in investigating a mood rather than telling a story. He deliberately made his pictures mysterious and the meaning of this work has been debated by critics. One suggestion is that the staircase, without visible beginning or end, represents continuous movement. Models for the painting include Frances Graham, daughter of Burne-Jones’s patron William Graham and Mary Gladstone, daughter of British Prime Minister WE Gladstone. Burne-Jones’s daughter, Margaret, is pictured at the top of the stairs.

Gallery label, August 2019

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The Annunciation

Arthur Hacker, The Annunciation  1892

This scene shows the Christian story of the Annunciation, as told in the Gospel of James. In this version, Mary is met by an angel she cannot see while gathering water from a well. He tells her that she will have a baby and that he should be named Jesus. After studying in London and Paris, Arthur Hacker spent time in Spain and Morocco. This had a strong influence on his art. Mary’s clothing probably reflects Islamic dress Hacker saw during his travels. Infra-red photography shows that the painting originally included a woman wearing a headscarf sitting behind Mary.

Gallery label, February 2020

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artworks in 1840

Dew-Drenched Furze

Sir John Everett Millais, Bt, Dew-Drenched Furze  1889–90

Dew-Drenched Furze was painted on site in Perthshire in a wood near Birnam Hill. The Millais family had rented a holiday home there from 1881. Millais intended to capture the morning sun streaming through a clearing, illuminated by droplets of dew. This was, according to his son, a subject Millais had never painted before, and one that as he begun he feared ‘might be unpaintable.’ He claimed his inspiration for the painting was ‘the potent voice of the wood spirits'.

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artworks in 1840

Art in this room

Ophelia
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt Ophelia 1851–2
Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose
John Singer Sargent Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose 1885–6
The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke
Richard Dadd The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke 1855–64
The Doctor
Sir Luke Fildes The Doctor exhibited 1891
Proserpine
Dante Gabriel Rossetti Proserpine 1874
Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’)
Sir John Everett Millais, Bt Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’) 1849–50

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