Reading of Love, He being by by Robert Bateman (1842–1922). Watercolour and gouache, 10 x 13½ inches (25.4 x 34.3 cm). Signed with initials and dated “RB/73,” lower right. Private Collection.
Robert Bateman was the leader of the so-called “Poetry Without Grammar School,” a group of young artists that exhibited at the Dudley Gallery who were united in their admiration for the works that Edward Burne-Jones showed at the Old Water-Colour Society between 1864 and 1870. Bateman exhibited this work at the Dudley Gallery in 1874, no. 646. John Christian has commented on the debt that Bateman’s picture owes to Burne-Jones.
The watercolour is a typical Dudley picture, being highly poetic in feeling but not too explicit in theme. This is truly Aestheticism in practice, the evocation of a mood, the creation of a formal and chromatic harmony, the deliberate avoidance of anything so vulgarly explicit as those staples of Victorian picture-making, narrative and moral. There are echoes of Burne-Jones, not only in a general reference to his ‘magic world of romance and pictured poetry’ but in specific details. The girl reading from a book recalls his Green Summer, shown at the OWCS in 1865, while the figure of Cupid attending and inspiring a celebration of love looks back to his Chant d’Amour which appeared at the same venue the following year….But Bateman was far from being a mere imitator of Burne-Jones (of which there were many). On the contrary, his style is highly personal, not to say sometimes, in Crane’s words, ‘very weird’ [48-49]
Reading of Love, He being by is totally characteristic of Bateman’s imaginative works from this time period. Not only does this watercolour epitomize the work of the Poetry Without Grammar School, the style is uniquely Bateman’s and could not be confused with a work by any of the other members of this group.
Another major influence on this watercolour is Italian quattrocento painting, especially the work of Mantegna and Piero della Francesca. William Michael Rossetti, when reviewing the Dudley exhibition of 1874 in The Academy, hinted at the joint influence of Pre-Raphaelitism and the Italian Renaissance on this work:
Mr. Bateman is an artist whom we naturally couple with Mr. Clifford. There is a purity of sentiment and method in his contribution named Reading of Love, he being by: some women thus occupied, and Cupid in propria persona, visibly invisible in the opposite compartment of the picture. Such work is, however, a sufficiently unnatural hybrid between Mr. Dante Rossetti or Mr. Burne Jones, and Overbeck or Fra Angelico. We cannot accept it as genuine subject or spontaneous treatment; it is the product of a mind which supposes something about passion, poetry and castigation, and mixes these extraneous elements as best it can into a too insipid kind of curds-and-whey. 
As Rossetti’s use of the word ‘unnatural’ shows, he was not entirely happy with the result. Perhaps if he had been aware of the underlying symbolism of this work, and its relationship to Bateman’s love for Caroline Howard, he would have been more understanding in his critique. The architectural background of this watercolour was painted at Bateman’s home Biddulph Old House. At the time it was painted Bateman was in a thwarted but obsessional love affair with Caroline Octavia Howard, the daughter of the Hon. Henry Edward Howard, the Dean of Lichfield. Her family disapproved of their relationship, however, and Robert and Caroline were not able to marry until much later in 1883. In 1876 Caroline was married to an Anglican vicar, the Reverend Charles Wilbraham, who died in 1879. In Nigel Daly’s The Lost Pre-Raphaelite, he contends that 1873, the year this watercolour was painted, was a critical one in the relationship between Robert and Caroline and that their illegitimate son Henry was conceived at that time (285). Caroline Howard appears to be the model for the standing female figure holding on to a tree and with her left hand over her heart that the reading of the love poetry appears to be directed towards, with the figure of Love listenting in.
Christian, John. British Art on Paper, London: Christies, (November 28, 2000): lot 43, 48-49.
Daly, Nigel. The Lost Pre-Raphaelite: The Secret Life and Loves of Robert Bateman. London: Wilmington Square Books, 2014. [Review by George P. Landow]
Rossetti, William M. “The Dudley Gallery.” The Academy and Literature 5 (February 7, 1874): 155-56.
Last modified 20 July 2021