The representation of death is Sandys’s central theme. Within his limited production he twice depicts death-bed scenes and on four occasions the moment of death. He also shows a body and a rotting corpse; the tending of a grave; imminent death through starvation; and the contemplation of death as a philosophical choice. Of course these subjects were largely determined by the sentimental poems he was commissioned to illustrate, and others, such as Matthew Lawless and Holman Hunt, produced a parallel imagery. Nevertheless, Sandys seems to have been regarded as a specialist, a status he may have been granted following the publication of the grotesque Until her death in Good Words (1862).

Left to right: (a) Until Her Death. (b) Death on the Barricades from Auch ein Totentanz [Another Dance of Death]. [Click on images for larger pictures.]

Until her death illustrates a poem by Mrs Craik in which a young woman contemplates death in the form of a grinning skeleton. The verse is a pious reflection on the importance of faith as a means of transcending mortality, but Sandys converts it into a choice between the active and passive life, and between sterile chastity (symbolized by the skeleton’s wearing of a nun’s cap) and sexuality and child-bearing (signalled by the half-concealed cot with a baby’s ribbons laid over it). Though understated, the image re-locates the poem’s meaning (which is purely about stoical acceptance) to suggest that the woman will choose to defy death through an active engagement with the world. This is implied by emblems of life and regeneration (such as the cot and potted plant), a stance also suggested by the up-turned copy of The Cornhill Magazine which features in the bottom foreground. Figured in the style of Titian, the woman is nevertheless of the contemporary present, and will live, so the artist implies, in the here and now.

We can see, in other words, how the harsh juxtaposition of a healthy young woman and a grinning skull is ameliorated by a close reading of the Pre-Raphaelite details. The illustration seems unambiguous in its apparent assertion of the omnipresence of death, but contains other, more hopeful meanings. At once a danse macabre that draws on the example of Rethel’s Another Dance of Death (1848), Until her death is not ultimately depressing. The same ambivalence – suggesting both the terror of death and redemption in life – finds expression throughout his designs.

Left to right: (a) Death of King Warwulf. (b) The Litle Mourner. (c) Sleep.

In the Death of King Warwulf the moment of extinction is infused with a melancholy grandeur in the form of the king’s stoical acceptance, accepting the flames as he sits as if on his throne. There is an unsentimental stoicism in The Little Mourner, and again in Sleep, where resurrection is symbolized by the flowers positioned on the window-ledge and the opened window itself, a sign of the soul’s release. It is only in Amor Mundi that the hereafter is infused with visceral horror in the form of a decomposing corpse. Moralising in effect, it points to the fact that although Sandys deploys shock-tactics – in this design, in Until her death and Yet once more – his images are fundamentally conventional representations of mid-Victorian notions of mortality, with only the slightest implication of the presence of anxious uncertainties.

Last modified 15 July 2013