The Heavenly Stair
Oil on canvas
H 178 x W 85.6 cm
Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Accession no. BORGM 01113
The painting was first shown in 1888 with a quotation from a poem by George MacDonald: "Little One who Straight has come Down the Heavenly Stair" (see below the image for the whole poem). Hughes had met and become friends with MacDonald in 1859, and illustrated many of his works. As Stephen Wildman says, "His simple command of line and sometimes startling imagination perfectly complemented MacDonald's stories," and he went on to become a well-known illustrator, returning to illustration, after a gap, at the end of the century, with more work for MacDonald. Clearly, something in MacDonald's vision chimed with Hughes's own leaning towards the mystical and the symbolic.
Here, watched by angelic beings, the infant comes to his mother from heaven, moving the father to doff his cap. The painting echoes both Edward Burne-Jones's Golden Stairs, and of the Nativity scene itself. Wildman describes it as one of Hughes's "occasional triumphs" at a time when his reputation as a painter was in decline. — Jacqueline Banerjee.
Image released on the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence.