The Babylonian Marriage Market, by Edwin Long. 1875. Oil on canvas, 72.6 x 304.6 cm. Picture Gallery at Royal Holloway, University of London. Accession number: THC0039. Purchased for Thomas Holloway, 1882. According to the short guide available at the gallery, Long's source here was Herodotus's description of such events, when unmarried women were ranked according to their looks, and auctioned off publicly. Long depended here not only on his own travels, but also on his sketching trips to the British Museum, much closer at hand. From this source, for example, came the "Assyrian bas-relief sculptures in the background."

Left: The painting in its frame. Right: Close-up of four of the young women waiting for their turn.

The frame is more than usually important here because Long has indicated the individual women's ranking, in cuneiform script, within the circles along the bottom edge (see blow right). From the reactions in the auction space, it would seem that the most beautiful is now being displayed, and someone on the extreme left is already peeping under the veil of the next in line. Next to her, another young woman admires or checks herself in a hand-mirror. The ones in the middle with folded arms look more disconsolate — and the one at the extreme right seems to be hiding her face on her knees. On the other hand, the one just ahead of her is engaging in some animated conversation with one of the men. Something could be said about each individual in this intriguing line-up, as well as about the postures and gestures of the more prominent men. But of course the whole feel of the event, in which marriage partners are chosen for their looks alone, is inimical to us now.

The first two numbers along the lower edge of the frame, from the left, easily recognisable as 1 and 2.

Talking of auctions, in purchasing this painting, "Holloway set the record for the highest sum ever paid at auction for a work by a contemporary artist" (Guide). He was criticised for this — and of course the subject itself seems a strange one for the picture gallery of such an institution, aimed at educating young women to the highest level. However, Long himself was pleased, and, as Caroline Bingham says, the work reflected current taste for "Babylonian antiquities" (50). It might also have encouraged the intelligent students at the college to make sure of their independence!

Photographs, commentary and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee, with thanks to the Picture Gallery for allowing photography. You may use the images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and the Picture Gallery and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Related Material


Bingham, Caroline. The History of Royal Holloway College 1886-1986. London: Constable, 1987.

Guide to the Picture Gallery (available at the gallery in March 2019).

Created 11 March 2019