The Knot

Proserpine by Sir Edward John Poynter Bt PRA RWS (1839-1919). Oil on canvas; monogrammed and dated 1871, 13 ½ x 12 ¾ inches. Provenance: WH Doeg, and by descent to his granddaughter Mrs DM Headey; With Sotheby's 17.3.1971 lot 128; J S Maas & Co Ltd; Servase, 1973.

Commentary by the Maas Gallery

It is hard to place this picture chronologically amongst Poynter’s oeuvre, as is so often the case with this artist, who in early life designed in collaboration with William Burges. The idea for it seems to have started life as a design for a decorative scheme, one of a set of tiles for the Grill Room of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The theme is of Proserpine gathering flowers in the Vale of Enna, from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

that fair field
Of Enna, where Proserpine, gathering flowers,
Herself a fairer flower, by gloomy Dis
Was gathered’ [Book IV, lines 268-71]

There is a preparatory watercolour in the V&A dated 1868, where she is clearly gathering daffodils, with the sea in the distance behind her (in our version she is gathering poppies, with woodland behind). In Poynter’s Royal Academy version of 1869, a larger painting (whereabouts unknown), she is also gathering daffodils. In another small version exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, she was said also to be picking daffodils. That version belonged to HRH Princess Louise, having been commissioned by Queen Victoria, who had admired the 1869 version, but missed buying it. The Princess owned that and seven other small paintings by Poynter of goddesses and women from legend and antiquity, which all derived from designs for the V&A scheme. There appears to be no trace of these pictures. Unless ours is the ex-Princess Louise version (it is possible that the reviewer in who described the flowers as daffodils was mistaken), then ours is therefore another, fourth version, probably dating from around 1878.

Poynter loved to play with light; it flows under the trees, backlighting the composition, and edges the profile of the body leaving the cloth of the robe diaphanous. The zing of red in the flowers punctuates the cool greens and creams.

At some point they were lavishly framed by Agnew's in gilded tabernacle frames. The pictures, the same size and shape as tiles, are painted on gilded wood panels, the gold adding an extraordinary lustre to the glazed colours that are laid on with varying thickness to generate effects of reflection, translucence and opacity. Poynter, the son of an architect, although becoming a grand painter of Neo-Classical subjects and President of the Royal Academy, was at the beginning of his career an accomplished decorative designer (perhaps his most famous project being the cafe at the V&A), who worked with William Burges.

The Maas Gallery, 6 Duke Street St James's, London SW1Y 6BN, has most generously given its permission to use in the Victorian Web information, images, and text from its catalogues, and this generosity has led to the creation of many valuable documents on painting and drawing. The copyright on text and images from their catalogues remains, of course, with the Gallery. Readers should consult their website to obtain information about recent exhibitions and to order their catalogues. [GPL]

Last modified 19 May 2018