Monday, August 30, 2010

(Sir) William Blake Richmond - Perseus and Andromeda

Price Realized £14,340

oil on panel
36 x 27 5/8 in. (91.5 x 70.2 cm.)

Stark naked, Perseus swoops out of the clouds to rescue Andromeda as, chained to a rock, she waits to become the victim of a ravening sea-monster. He carries neither the sword with which he traditionally despatches the monster, nor the gorgon's decapitated head which is also sometimes shown as his weapon of defence. The monster itself is conspicuous by its absense, and even Andromeda is unusually conceived, being shown draped when she is usually nude.

In view of these anomalies, it was suggested in the Victorian Imagination exhibition catalogue that the subject may not be that of Perseus and Andromeda at all, but some scene of mythological rape such as Boreas's abduction of Oreithyia. However, while this hypothesis solves one set of problems, it creates another. When Richmond painted a later version of the Perseus and Andromeda theme, one which has no iconographical ambiguity (private collection; Reynolds, op. cit, pl. 104), he retained the pose of Perseus as the hero appears in the present picture, and again shows Andromeda partially draped. Moreover, the Forbes picture has been identified with an Andromeda that Richmond included in his retrospective exhibition at the New Gallery in 1900-1.

In any event, the picture gives the impression of not being wholly resolved or finished, a feature which, together with its unusually strong colouring, makes it more intense in feeling than many of Richmond's works. A full-scale composition drawing for the painting, executed in black chalk, is in the same private collection as Richmond's later treatment of the subject, mentioned in the last paragraph.

As Simon Reynolds observes, the air-borne and anatomically distorted figure of Perseus surely owes something to William Blake, or perhaps to such a Blake-inspired work as The Creation of Light (Tate Gallery) by Richmond's father, George Richmond, painted when the artist was only seventeen in 1826. George Richmond had been one of the so-called 'Ancients', the group of young men who encountered Blake in his old age and looked on him as a beloved and revered mentor. It had been hoped that the younger Richmond would be born on the anniversary of Blake's birthday, 28 November. As it happened, he arrived a day late, but he was still given the forenames William Blake in the great man's honour, while another 'Ancient', Samuel Palmer, acted as his godfather. Blake remained almost as much of a presence in his life as he was in that of Geroge Richmond himself.

Apart from its appearance in the New Gallery retrospective, the picture does not seem to have been exhibited by Richmond, perhaps because of its lack of finish. However, it attracted the attention and was bought by Andrew Lang, the classical scholar and folklorist probably best known today as the author of the eleven so-called Coloured Fairy Books, published by Longmans with illustrations by H.J. Ford between 1889 and 1910. Richmond painted a striking portrait of Lang (Scottish National Portrait Gallery), which he exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885. Three years later his likeness of Mrs Lang (whereabouts unknown) was shown at the New Gallery's opening exhibition.

The story of Perseus and Andromeda was central to late Victorian classicism. One of the first to handle it was D.G. Rossetti. During a brief flirtation with classicism in the mid-1860s, he made drawings for a painting of Perseus showing Andromeda the gorgon's head in a pool. Unfortunately, the severed head was too much for the prospective buyer and the project went no further, but by the 1870s other artists were taking up the theme. Edward Poynter treated it in one of four large canvases which he painted for the billiard room at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield, in the 1870s, and in 1875 his brother-in-law Burne-Jones accepted a commission to paint a series of illustrations to the story for the music room of Arthur Balfour's London house, 4 Carlton Gardens. Individual pictures were completed, but the series as a whole remained unfinished at the artist's death in 1898. Frederic Leighton was another exponent. One of his most ambitious (not to say bizarre) late works was a Perseus and Andromeda exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1891, and a circular-shaped painting of Perseus on Pegasus coming to the Rescue of Andromeda (Leicestershire Museum) was still on the easel when he died five years later. The tradition lived on into the next generation. Frank Dicksee, who had studied under Leighton in the Royal Academy Schools, painted Andromeda chained to the rock as his contribution to the panels in the hall at Alma-Tadema's house in Grove End Road.

We are grateful to Simon Reynolds for his help in preparing this entry.

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