The publication of Ronald Lessens' and Dennis Lanigan's Henry Wallis: From Pre-Raphaelite Painter to Collector/Connoisseur has provided the basis for a systematic scholarly approach to the work of a neglected Pre-Raphaelite artist. In particular, they have located a number of his hitherto untraced works from the late 1850s and early 1860s including two in which Sir Walter Raleigh is the subject.
As I have argued elsewhere, there is a pattern in Wallis’s choice of subjects in his works of this period. He seems to have focused on historical figures from the Stuart period in particular, who were politically and religiously radical. These reflected his own beliefs since, like William Michael Rossetti, he was both a Republican and an atheist. The Regicide Henry Marten, represented in two of his RA exhibited works of 1856 and 1858 and Andrew Marvell, an opponent of Charles II, are two examples. Walter Raleigh also fits this pattern. By Mid-Victorian times he was well established as a national hero both for opposing the Spanish and for his discoveries in the New World.
However, Wallis’s interest in him would also have come from the fact that Raleigh had a reputation as an atheist and a strong opponent of monarchy. Indeed, the hostility to monarchy he displayed in his monumental History of The World, composed while imprisoned in the Tower, aroused James I's hostility and led to the work being banned.
Wallis's three RA exhibited works on Raleigh in this period form a kind of triptych which cover his career opposing the Spanish Catholic threat. Sir Walter Raleigh at Durham House (RA exhibited 1862) shows him at the height of his reputation during the Elizabethan era. He is shown calmly gazing out of the window and filling his pipe, reflecting his fame as the man who first brought tobacco to England from the New World. The tragic denouement to the Raleigh story is depicted in Gondemar witnessing the execution of Raleigh (RA exhibited 1861). The picture is now untraced but from contemporary reviews it showed the Spanish ambassador gazing in triumph on Raleigh's execution in 1618. Gondemar had persuaded James I to do this as part of his pro-Spanish foreign policy which Raleigh had opposed.
The most difficult to interpret of the series is Sir Walter Raleigh in The Tower (RA exhibited 1859). This shows Raleigh imprisoned in The Tower by James I, following his 1603 Treason Trial working on his History of the World. A picture of Queen Elizabeth is on the wall symbolising for Raleigh a better past. Facing Raleigh is a young boy in Princely attire, contrasting with Raleigh's shabby garb, who is blowing bubbles from a pipe. How should he be interpreted? Does he represent the corrupt, frivolous and Catholic-leaning Stuart monarchy to which Raleigh was opposed? It is more probable that he represents James I's eldest son, Prince Henry, who hero-worshipped Raleigh. Had he not died in 1612 aged 18, Raleigh would not have been executed and the Protestant succession would have been guaranteed. From this perspective the boy could represent a figure of Hope and Inspiration encouraging Raleigh to continue his great work.
Lessens, Ronald and Dennis Lanigan. Henry Wallis: From Pre-Raphaelite Painter to Collector/Connoisseur. Woodbridge, Suffolk: ACC Art Books, 2019.
Created 26 March 2021