Orpheus and Euridice

The Death of the Year by Walter Crane by Walter Crane, RWS 1845-1915. Tempera and gouache on paper laid on linen, signed with monogram and dated 'Roma MDCCCLXXII': 15 1/2 x 44 3/4 inches, 39 x 114 cm. In the original oak gilt frame carved with the symbols of the zodiac and the symbols of the times of the day.

Studies: An early painted study for the composition is in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge from the collection of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon where it was attributed to Frederic Lord Leighton. Provenance: Commissioned by Miss Monk, Rome 1872; Mrs Irene Wilberforce

Commentary by Hilary Morgan

The 'Death of the Year' was painted by Crane at the end of 1872 in Rome, where the twenty-seven year old artist was enjoying an extended honeymoon. It was his most complex and ambitious imaginative work up to that date, and its qualities stem from the intensity of his first experience of Italian life and art. The artist himself described the picture:

The Death of the Year was also one of the subjects painted in Rome -- the months following the bier of the dead year; Time as a priest reading from a service book, and love swinging a censer, being no doubt reminiscent of what one may have seen in some Roman Church (Crane, 1898).

The subject derives from Shelley's Dirge for the Year, written in 1821 and published posthumously. Crane's chief inspiration was the fourth and final stanza.

From his first exhibited watercolour, the 'Lady of Shalott' (exhibited Royal Academy 1862), poetry was a constant inspiration to Crane. Shelley had a special place in his affections, for when Crane was still in his teens it was the poems of Shelley that made him a free-thinker (Crane, 1907). He records his meetings in Rome in 1873 with Captain Silsbee, an American Shelley enthusiast, also with the wife and daughter of Trelawney, the poet's friend (ibid). In the spring of 1873 he produced a watercolour of Shelley's tomb for his friend and patron George Howard, which is now in the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford. While working on this he composed a sonnet on Shelley's tomb, quoted in his book (ibid and Whitely, 1989). It is possible that the immediate inspiration for 'The Death of the Year' may have been William Michael Rossetti's edition of Shelley which appeared in 1870. Crane's involvement in Pre-Raphaelite circles in this period would certainly have drawn his attention to this volume.

The final form of this work owes much to Crane's experience of Italy. However its origin lies in the interests of his circle in Britain in the late 1860s and early 1870s and its conception may even date from that period. This is suggested in Crane's second description of the work. He recalled that in the autumn of 1872 his patron Somerset Beaumont visited him in Rome, where Crane had returned on the lOth October after a summer in the south of Italy:

He found me at work upon a design, conceived some time before, suggested by Shelley's lines on The Death of The Year, a procession of the Months following the bier of the year, preceded by a winged figure swinging incense and a priest-like one in a cope reading from a book and passing into a pillared porch of a temple — the house of time. This work had been seen and purchased by Miss Monk, who called on us, having previously bought in London a watercolour picture of mine (an Annunciation).(Crane, 1907)

In Britain Crane was at the centre of a group of avant-garde young artists united by their admiration for Burne-Jones and Simeon Solomon. The circle included Robert Bateman, Henry Ellis Wooldridge, Theodore Blake Wirgman, Edward Clifford and Alfred Sacherevel. Coke. Crane's works, like those of the other artists, were regularly rejected by the Royal Academy, so the circle exhibited together at the more liberal Dudley Gallery. Critics dubbed them "'the archaic," "the legendary" or by more downright dislike "the loathly"' school (Times, 14th February 1870), the 'mystico-medieval or romantico-classic' group (Illustrated London News, 14th February 1874) or, succinctly, the 'poetry without grammar school'(Westminster Review, January-April 1869). Hostile as these descriptions are they do accurately define the unusual qualities of the 'Death of the Year' which is indeed archaic, poetic and mystical, and blends classicism and medievalism. Crane's work appeared singular to the average Victorian and in this period he met the usual reception given to artistic innovators.

The Death of the Year reveals the group's interest in religious mysticism, but for the free-thinking Crane, this was a response to the beauty and poetry of religion rather than the product of Christian belief One might compare Burne-Jones's attitudes (see the discussion of his 'Saint Dorothea' this catalogue number 65) or particularly those of Simeon Solomon. Solomon showed many watercolours depicting religious rituals in the Dudley Gallery in the late 1860s, for instance the 'Mystery of Faith' (1870, Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). These precedents coloured and intensified Crane's response to the Catholic rites he witnessed in Italy. His Reminiscences contain several accounts of these, such as a procession in the cathedral of Sorrento of bishops, cardinals and guilds in splendid capes and robes, bearing candles (Crane, 1907). Such experiences, as he suggested, were formative influences on the present drawing.

The other formative influence was Crane's experience of early Renaissance painting in its original setting. In the Autumn of 1871 he travelled to Rome via Florence and in the Uffizi particularly admired Botticelli's 'Spring' and 'Birth of Venus' although these were still hung high in minor rooms (Crane, 1907).On this journey he also praised the works by Mantegna, Carpaccio and Bellini he saw in Verona and Venice. Even in this, however, his tastes in Britain had prepared him for his Italian experience. This scene of entombment recalls the interment of St Dorothea in the background of Burne-Jones's 'St Theophilus and the Angel' (1868)(Bell). Crane wrote of Burne-Jones: 'We had a glimpse into a magic world of romance and pictured poetry .... a twilight world of dark mysterious woodlands, haunted streams, meads of deep green starred with burning flowers, veiled in a dim and mystic light, and stained with low-toned crimson and gold' (Crane, 1907). Crane approached Renaissance painting in the same romantic manner as Burne-Jones and this is expressed in the moody landscape, the stylised figures and the processional composition of the 'Death of the Year'.

The frame of the painting is worthy of comment. The Pre-Raphaelites had decorated their frames with symbolic designs from the beginning of the movement, and in the 1860s both Rossetti and Whistler had been particularly concerned with the decorative effect of their picture frames. It is interesting that Crane too shares this decorative and symbolic concern (Roberts, 1985 and 1986).


Crane, Walter. Reminiscences. London: Methuen, 1907.

Crane, Walter. The Work of Walter Crane with notes by the Artist. Easter Art Annual 1898.

Morgan, Hilary and Nahum, Peter. Burne-Jones, The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Century. London: Peter Nahum, 1989. Catalogue number 119.

Schleinitz. O. Von. Walter Crane. Leipzig, 1902.

Spencer, Isabel. Walter Crane. London: Studio Vista, 1975.

Roberts, L. Nineteenth Century English Picture Frames: I. The Pre-Rophaelites. II. The Victorian High Renaissance, International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship. Vol 4 (1985) and Vol 5 (1986).

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Last modified 27 June 2020