At the start of this series, I identified four reasons why narrative painting in Britain had been so slow to develop:
- doctrinal suppression because of the religious beliefs of the Reformation, when the Church of England separated from the Pope and the Catholic Church in Europe;
- cultural shortcomings, in that the wealthy and powerful overvalued portraits of themselves and frequently lacked a classical education;
- lack of training, in the absence of any form of academy with royal support;
- short-term planning, by hiring established artists from continental Europe instead of developing home talent.
By the time that William Dyce (1806–1864) started his career, all four had changed. Born in Aberdeen, Dyce was trained in the Royal Academy Schools in London, and spent about two years in Rome between 1825 and 1828. When he returned to the UK, he set up as a portraitist, but started painting narrative works as well.
He had a long and significant career in art education, starting with the School of Design in Edinburgh. He was then invited to run the newly-established Government School of Design in London, which later became the Royal College of Art. In 1838 he was commissioned to enquire into the future of art and design education, and formulated what became known as the South Kensington System, the dominant model for art education for the remainder of the nineteenth century.
Dyce’s composition for the classical narrative painting of The Judgement of Solomon (1836) is unusual: Poussin and most others before him elected for symmetric views directly at Solomon on his throne, with the mothers on either side. Dyce chooses a side-on view which results in a linear sequence of figures, from a very young (rather than visibly sagacious) king high on his throne at the left, and placing the two mothers and their babies in the centre of the painting. This proves effective, and an eloquent solution to a classic compositional problem.
The next of Dyce’s paintings tells one of many stories embedded in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, in its first part Inferno (Hell). Paolo and Francesca da Rimini were in the second circle of hell for their sins of lust: she committed adultery with her husband’s brother, Paolo Malatesta. Her husband Giovanni (or Gian Cotto) then killed them both.
Dyce’s choice of scene for Francesca da Rimini (1837) is unusual, in showing the adulterous couple engaged in apparently quite modest lovemaking, fully clad, under a crescent moon. However, an ominous hand belonging to someone else, presumably Francesca’s husband, is seen at the extreme left. There’s also evidence of a more complete figure of Giovanni having been at that left edge, now presumably painted over. Without that, there are no real clues as to the narrative, nor to its imminent climax.
In 1845, Dyce was invited to paint frescos for the Royal Family, for which he travelled to Italy to learn technique. On his return in 1847, he painted this curious composition in Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s new and luxurious holiday palace of Osborne House, at East Cowes on the Isle of Wight (a few miles from where I live).
Neptune Resigning to Britannia the Empire of the Sea (1847) is an impressive fresco, and remains in pristine condition. Neptune stands astride his three white seahorses (with fish tails!), holding their reins in his right hand, and passing his crown with the left. The crown is just about to be transferred by Mercury (with wings on his cap) to the gold-covered figure of Britannia, who holds a ceremonial silver trident in her right hand.
Neptune is supported by his entourage in the sea, including the statutory brace of nudes and conch-blowers. At the right, Britannia’s entourage is more serious in intent, and includes the lion of England, and figures representing industry, trade, and navigation. The narrative is novel, and a tribute to his monarch, to denote the assumption of power over the seas of the world by Britannia, symbolising the Queen herself. It’s undiluted flattery, of course, and exquisitely executed.
Dyce also engaged in the popular Victorian sub-genre of Arthurian legend. This watercolour of Piety: The Knights of the Round Table about to Depart in Quest of the Holy Grail (1849) uses the hatching more commonly found in illustration and prints, and was the study for a fresco for the Queen’s Robing Room in the Palace of Westminster (Houses of Parliament) in London.
It shows a melée of knights of the Round Table paying tribute to King Arthur and Queen Guinevere (at the right), as those knights prepare to depart on their quest for the Holy Grail, the legendary chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper before his crucifixion (or possibly a cup used by Joseph of Arimathea to collect Christ’s blood). It’s perhaps the Arthurian equivalent of Frith’s Derby Day.
Unusually, Dyce tried to couple this series of Arthurian frescos with the seven Christian virtues. He completed those for Mercy, Hospitality, Generosity, Piety, and Courtesy, but not for Courage or Fidelity. The links between the narratives chosen and the corresponding virtue aren’t particularly strong.
The meeting and marriage of Jacob and Rachel is described in the Old Testament, in Genesis chapter 29. Laban, Jacob’s uncle, had two daughters, Leah the older, and Rachel. Jacob was sent to Laban’s town to avoid being killed by Esau, and to find himself a wife. One day he was by the well, where Rachel was about to water Laban’s sheep, and decided to marry her; Laban required him to work for him for seven years to take Rachel as his wife. However, on the wedding night, Rachel’s older sister was substituted by Laban, who argued that it was customary for the older daughter to be given first in marriage, and offered to give Rachel to Jacob too if he worked another seven years for him. That he did.
This detail from The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel (1850) follows convention in the portrayal of this first meeting. Rachel is shown as being shy and coy, her eyes and head downcast. Jacob stares intently at her, clasping her right hand to his chest while his left hand holds the nape of her neck.
As with many nineteenth century artists, Dyce painted scenes from Shakespeare’s plays. This next work from about 1851 shows the well-known scene of King Lear and the Fool in the Storm. This occurs after Lear rages at his daughter Regan; the King rushes out into a storm, accompanied by his Fool, where he rants against his two ungrateful daughters.
The King is shown having a good rant into the wind of the storm, his body language profuse. Resting with his head propped on the heels of his hands, the Fool also looks up to the heavens.
My final example of Dyce’s narrative paintings is one of his more puzzling, and may not be intended to convey any story at all. In the autumn of 1860, Dyce stayed in the Conwy Valley in Wales for six weeks, where he sketched and painted avidly. After his return to London, he painted this in oils.
Welsh Landscape with Two Women Knitting (1860) shows the rough and rugged scenery above the valley, a rock outcrop filling much of the left half of the painting. In its centre is an old woman, and to the right a young one, each dressed in traditional clothes, and knitting. A sliver of a crescent moon is visible low in the sky.
The younger woman wears a formal ensemble which had recently been revived and designated the ‘Welsh national costume’, as might be worn for Eisteddfods and other special occasions. They are both knitting stockings from scavenged scraps of wool, an activity which might have been common earlier in the century and performed indoors at home. It had largely disappeared by 1860, and is a conspicuously incongruous activity for such an outdoor location.
If there’s one of Dyce’s paintings which shouts out that it has a deeper reading, it is this. It’s easy to postulate that this is about time: the contrasting ages of the women and their ‘historic’ costume, knitting (as in Leighton’s Winding the Skein) being an activity used to pass the time usefully, the geology of the rock outcrop, and the moon. But is that Dyce’s intent?
With William Dyce, all four of the barriers to British narrative painting had been removed. It was time for the Pre-Raphaelites.