Friday, August 27, 2010

Augustus Leopold Egg - Night on the River Thames, a study for 'Past and Present', Part III (recto); and a study of a woman and child (verso)

Price Realized £8,365

oil on board
6 7/8 x 8 1/2 in. (17.4 x 21.6 cm.)

Possibly the artist's studio sale, Christie's, London, 18 May 1863, lot 124(?).
with George Davidson, Glasgow.
Anon. sale, Christie's, Glasgow, 24 February 1989, lot 227, as Circle of Augustus Leopold Egg, when acquired by the present owner.

This is a small study for the final canvas in Egg's monumental triptych of modern morality, Past and Present, now in Tate Britain. Conceived in three parts, it depicts the fate of a family ruined by a mother's adultery. In the first, the sin is discovered by her husband. In the second, her daughters' fate is described, orphaned and outcast from society five year's later on account of her disgrace. They stare at the same moon as appears in the third, at which the mother also gazes, dressed in rags and sheltering under a dry arch in the Adelphi. When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1858, the following fictional narrative was appended to the title:

August the 4th. Have just heard that B- has been dead more than a fortnight, so his poor children have now lost both their parents. I hear she was seen on Friday last near the Strand, evidently without a place to lay her head. What a fall hers has been!.

The series caused a sensation when exhibited, exacerbated no doubt by reviews such as that given by the Athenaeum. 'Mr Egg's unnamed picture is divided into three compartments, each more ghastly and terrible than the other, till in the last we come to such a sink of misery and loathsomeness, painted with such an unhealthy determination to dissect horror and to catalogue the dissecting-room that we turn from what is a real and possible terror as from an impure thing that seems out of place in a gallery of laughing brightness, where young, unstained, unpainted and happy faces come to chat and trifle. There must be a line drawn as to where the horrors that should not be painted for public and innocent sight begin, and we think Mr Egg has put one foot at least beyond this line'. The Atheneaum continued of the concluding scene: 'The destitute wife under the dark grave-vault shadow of an Adelphi arch - last refuge of the homeless sin, vice and beggary of London: the thin, starved legs of a bastard child - perhaps dead at her breast - protrude from her rags. There was never such moonlight painted as from that loathsome sewer arch you see mantling the yellow river with liquid gold'.

While the Art Journal also thought the subject 'too poignant for a series of paintings' it nevertheless praised the final episode as an 'unexampled success - we use the term in its most literal sense. We congratulate the painter on the inferno of the Adelphi arches: they are the lowest of all the profound deeps of human abandonment in this metropolis; but he has forgotten the rats which meet in hungry hundreds on the vantage-ground left by the retiring tide, - those inhabitants of lower London would have assisted the desolation of the place'.

The sketch no doubt found a place in the Forbes collection to recall other great works by artists on the same theme: Redgrave's The Outcast of 1851 (R.A. Diploma Gallery) and G.F. Watts Found Drowned and Under a Dry Arch (of 1848-50, The Watts Gallery) for example. Egg was a friend of Holman Hunt, whose The Awakening Conscience (Tate Britain) executed in 1853, also challenged Victorian society to examine its double standards. Egg's picture was painted directly after the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 which allowed wives to be divorced for adultery alone, while a husband's infidelity had to be accompanied by another offence, such as incest, bigamy, cruelty or desertion. Egg, rather than being judgemental, appears to have sympathy with his heroine. In the Tate version the posters behind the woman advertise the Haymarket plays, Tom Taylor's Victims and Tom Parry's A Cure for Love, which suggest the adulteress's status as an object of pathos.

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