The Convent Boat. Arthur Hughes. c. 1880. Oil on canvas, 36,5 x 59 cm (13 1/2 x 22 1/2 inches). [Click on image to enlarge it.] Provenance: Lot 271, Sotheby’s, 11 November 1998, and 12 May 1999 unsold; Lot 56, Lyon & Turnbull, Edinburgh, 9 December 2004 (as The Ferry). The picture was bought under the title River landscape with figure in traditional dress looking across towards a cloaked and hooded figure in a punt with cottage beyond, Mallams, 17th December 2008.
The picture – and its complex recent sales history − is described on the website that is a virtual supplement to Leonard Roberts’ catalogue raisonné, Arthur Hughes: His Life and Works, Antique Collectors Club, Woodbridge 1999.
Commentary by Paul Crowther
The iconography of the picture is much more complex than the Mallams title suggests, if only because the figures in it are clearly nuns. The actual setting of the picture is Aylesford Priory on the banks of the River Medway near Maidstone in Kent. Aylesford Priory had been a seat of the Carmelite Friars until 1538, when it was suppressed as part of King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. Thereafter it was in private hands (under various different families) until 1949, when the Carmelites re-acquired it. Hughes offers an imaginative reinterpretation of the building as something it never was − a nunnery.
The present work may be related to a narrative picture with the same title exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1874. Interesting questions arise, indeed, as to whether it is a narrative sequel to the earlier picture. The earlier work presents a sad family watching as one of their daughters is ferried away to enter a nunnery. In the present picture, a young nun with a basket waits on the banks of the river, as a punt (steered by another nun) approaches to ferry her across. The nunnery has a very different appearance from the earlier work, in that the vegetation growing on its walls has now become extremely dense, with the old entrance and several windows no longer visible. This invites a number of interpretations. It may be, for example, that the present picture merely represents a scene involving the same ‘nunnery’, but – since it was presumably done by Hughes a number of years after he had done the earlier painting – the foliage had become more overgrown. It is a scene from the same imagined nunnery, in other words, but with no narrative intention over and above that. Alternatively, it may be that Hughes intended that the young nun waiting to be ferried is the same girl who was taken into the nunnery as a novice in the earlier picture. Since she is waiting at the same place occupied by her family in the earlier work, the implication is that she has now found a new family in the sisterhood.
There is a further – somewhat darker – reading. It is that the stooped nun in the punt is the girl from the original picture, shown to us many years later. Now the only person who awaits her on the other side of the river is another member of the same order. Her original family have long gone into the past.
Other issues are raised by a particular feature of the composition. In the earlier work, the secular family are dressed in costumes roughly dating from when Henry VIII dissolved the monastic orders. Now, it may be that Hughes simply wanted to have his protagonists interestingly dressed, and did not consider the implications of this for his narrative’s historical setting. Alternatively, if he did intend the scene represented to be datable by the costumes, then a further interpretation is opened up. For, by providing us with these historical coordinates, Hughes is telling us that the girl’s stay in the convent is not going to be a long one. Even if – as in the present work – the girl has indeed become a nun, the secular world will, nevertheless soon take her back. She will be liberated from the overgrown and claustrophobic confines of the nunnery.
Clearly, the iconography of the present work will only be clarified definitively if documentary evidence explaining its relation to the earlier work is found.
Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 43.
Last modified 26 November 2014