Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Frederick Richard Pickersgill - Britomart Unarming

With that, her glistring helmet she unlaced;
Which doft, her golden lockes, and were upbound
Still in a knot, unto her heels downe traced,
Such when those Knights and Ladies all about
Beheld her, all were with amazement smit
Spenser's The Faerie Queene Book IV, canto i, verses 13-14
oil on canvas, arched top
125 by 105 cm., 49 by 41 1/2 in.

Britomart, the heroine of Books III of Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene, represents the virtues of chastity and friendship, and was intended as a personification of Queen Elizabeth I. The present painting takes its subject from IV, canto I, vv.xii and xiv. Britomart, dressed in armour and disguised as a man, served as a knight to Amoret, daughter of the nymph Chrysogone. When travelling together a young knight had claimed Amoret as his love, but Britomart 'the warlike virgine' had jousted with and defeated this man thus preserving the honour of her mistress. Pickersgill depicts the moment when Britomart, having forgiven her opponent, removes her helmet and frees her golden hair to reveal herself as a woman.

Frederick Pickersgill made a speciality of subjects from The Faerie Queene. One of his very early exhibits at the Royal Academy, in 1841, showed Amoret Delivered by Britomart. His Amoret, AEmylia and Prince Arthur in the Cottage of Sclaunder (Tate gallery), which Robert Vernon aquired from the Royal Academy in 1845, and The Contest of Beauty for the Girdle of Florimel - Britomart Unveiling Amoret (ex Sotheby's London, 3 November 1993, lot 29) which was shown in 1848, were two more subjects from Spenser's poem. There were the years when Pickersgill was coming to prominence on the London artistic scene, having been awarded a prize of £100 for his cartoon The Death of Lear at the first competition for the decoration of the Palace of Westminster in 1843, and having caused a sensation in 1847 at the second Westminster competition with his Death of Harold (Palace of Westminster), which won first prize and was purchased by the commissioners. The same year he was elected an associate of the Royal Academy, marking the commencement of along and distinguished career within the Academy, of which institution he was later appointed keeper.

In an article devoted to the artist published in 1855 - the year of the present painting - the Art Journal concluded that Pickersgill's paintings 'exhibit sound judgement and good taste in the selection of the subject [which is then] treated with delicacy of feeling and purity of expression. His style is altogether good, and the quality of his painting such as will test close observation, especially the works of the last five or six years, which manifest increased and increasing vigour of execution.' (Art Journal, 1855, p.236)

London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1855, no.16

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