Thursday, June 30, 2011
by Unknown artist, published by Hughes & Edmonds
albumen print, published 1876
William Powell Frith (1819-1909), Painter.
William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), Pre-Raphaelite painter.
Sir Edwin Henry Landseer (1802-1873), Painter.
Sir John Everett Millais, 1st Bt (1829-1896), Painter and President of the Royal Academy
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), Landscape painter.
Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841), Painter. Sitter in 21 portraits, Artist
Wednesday, June 29, 2011
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Your hands lie open in the long fresh grass, --
The finger-points look through like rosy blooms:
Your eyes smile peace. The pasture gleams and glooms
'Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
'Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.
Deep in the sun-searched growths the dragon-fly
Hangs like a blue thread loosened from the sky: --
So this wing'd hour is dropt to us from above.
Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
This close-companioned inarticulate hour
When twofold silence was the song of love.
written for Jane Morris
Monday, June 27, 2011
A friend of Rossetti and through him Morris and Burne-Jones
Sunday, June 26, 2011
Saturday, June 25, 2011
Friday, June 24, 2011
Thursday, June 23, 2011
Millais painted the background to the picture on the Devon coast near Exeter, not far from where Raleigh had been born.
The boys were Millais' sons - the man a local fisherman
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
(Sir) Frank Dicksee - Portrait of Mrs W. K. D'Arcy, seated, three-quarter length, in an opulent interior
Price Realized £97,250
signed and dated 'FRANK DICKSEE/-1902-' (lower right); and further signed and inscribed 'Frank Dicksee Esq. R.A. 3, Greville Place, St John's Wood' (on an old label on the reverse)
oil on canvas
54 x 61½ in. (137.2 x 156.2 cm.)
Painted for William Knox D'Arcy, the sitter's husband
London, Royal Academy, 1902, no. 139.
Frank Dicksee belonged to that unfortunate generation of late Victorian artists who found themselves marooned in mid-career. Making their names as painters of literary or historical subject pictures, they were suddenly faced around the turn of the century with the uncomfortable fact that such works were no longer in vogue. Even Burne-Jones, the greatest exponent of literary subject matter, suffered the humiliation of seeing Love Leading the Pilgrim (Tate Britain), his last major exhibited picture, return from the New Gallery unsold in 1897, nor was he under any illusion that, as he put it, 'the rage for me is over'. However, he died the following year, so the question of diversifying, even if he had been willing to entertain it, did not arise.
Younger men could not evade the issue, and portraiture was their great resource. J.W. Waterhouse, Dicksee's senior by four years, painted many portraits in later life, mainly of young women happy to see themselves immortalised as etheral neo-Pre-Raphaelite maidens. Dicksee, too, had a style that was readily adaptable, his lush, upholstered idiom being perfectly tailored to the depiction of upper-crust Edwardian womanhood in all her handsome and corsetted glory. It is fascinating to analyse a list of his Royal Academy exhibits. Between 1876, when he made his debut, and 1898, he showed nothing but subject pictures except one double portrait with a strong narrative element and a few landscapes. From 1899 until his death in 1928 he exhibitied no fewer than sixty-seven portraits and only a handful of subject pictures, often with titles that suggest they were little more than fanciful likenesses of pretty models of the kind that Lord Leighton had exhibited in Dicksee's youth. Dicksee's sitters did not exclude men; indeed he was quite sought after in military circles during and shortly after the Great War. He also found himself painting the daughters of several of his artist friends, Hedley Fitton, Sutton Palmer and others. But the overwhelming impression given by the list is that he had built up an extensive, and no doubt lucrative, practice painting the womenfolk of the aristocracy and nouveaux riches.
Press comment at the time he showed the present example in 1902 highlights the dilemma that an artist like Dicksee faced at this period. 'A portrait', the art critic on the Times observed, 'is often the only kind of picture for which an artist is at all certain to be paid'; and to show how true this was Dicksee's other exhibit that year, a distinctly overblown Belle Dame sans Merci, was savaged. The same critic moaned that it was 'decorative but not very Keatsian', and this view was echoed in the Academy, which called it a 'theatrical illustration of a poem that cries aloud against pictorial treatment of this kind'. The Athenaeum found the picture 'trying', while the Spectator dismissed it as 'fashionable rubbish'.
The subject of our portrait was the second wife of William Knox D'Arcy (1849-1917) of Stanmore Hall, near Harrow. D'Arcy is known to students of late Victorian art as the man who commissioned the Holy Grail tapestries from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, thus financing one of the supreme achievements of the Arts and Crafts movement, but there was much more to him than that. Born at Newton Abbot in Devonshire, the son of a solicitor, and educated at Westminster School, D'Arcy had left England in 1866 at the age of seventeen. His family had decided to emigrate to Australia, and when his father set up a practice in Rockhampton, Queensland, young William joined the firm. Through professional contacts, he was soon speculating in land and goldmining, joining a syndicate to develop Ironstone Mountain (later re-named Mount Morgan) in 1882. By 1886 he was a director and major shareholder of the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company, and three years later he returned to England, a multi-millionaire.
Nor was this by any means the end of D'Arcy's entrepreneurial career. In 1900 he agreed to fund a search for oil and minerals in Persia. Drilling began in 1903, and for some years the results were disappointing. D'Arcy had to find increasingly large sums of money to cover costs, and by 1908 he was close to bankruptcy. On 26 May that year, however, the excavators finally struck oil, and in April 1909 the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed, with D'Arcy as a director. Having made and nearly lost one fortune, he was on the brink of making another. Ultimately the Anglo-Persian Oil Company would become British Petroleum, and D'Arcy may be regarded as the founder of the modern oil industry in the Middle East.
On his return to England in 1889, D'Arcy brought with him a wife, Elena, a Rockhampton girl he had married in 1872, together with their five children, two sons and three daughters. He was determined to enjoy his wealth and live life in the fast lane. He had soon acquired not only a substantial London house, 42 Grosvenor Square, but Stanmore Hall as a country retreat within easy reach of the metropolis and an estate in Norfolk, Bylaugh Park, for the shooting. The D'Arcys entertained lavishly; Melba and Caruso were among the stars who performed at their private concerts, and they had their own enclosure on Epsom racecourse.
Stanmore is the house for which D'Arcy is remembered today. A neo-gothic pile of 1847 by J.M. Derick, it was remodelled for its new owner by the Ipswich architect Brightwen Binyou, while Morris & Co. were commissioned to furnish it throughout. Morris himself, disdainful of such a thoroughgoing capitalist as D'Arcy, took little interest in the scheme except for working closely with Burne-Jones to produce the Holy Grail tapestries, which hung in the dining-room and were eventually completed in 1894. Whether the two old friends were aware of the irony of a patron like D'Arcy enabling them to realise their Arthurian visions, we do not hear, but it can hardly have escaped them. The rest of the work was overseen by Morris's chief assistant, John Henry Dearle, although other members of the Arts and Crafts fraternity were closely involved. Much of the furniture was by George Jack, chimneypieces and many decorative details were designed by W.R. Lethaby, and stained glass was contributed by Louis Davis.
Elena D'Arcy died in 1897, and two years later D'Arcy re-married. His second wife, the subject of our portrait, was another Australian. Nina Bourcicault was the daughter of A.L. Bourcicault, the proprietor of the Rockhampton Argus, and the sister of Mary Bourcicault, a singer. Nina is also described in the records as Mrs Ernestine Nutting, which presumably means that she, like D'Arcy, had lost her spouse. D'Arcy must have known her during his years in Rockhampton. Both families had belonged to the town's professional elite, and, perhaps equally significantly, were of Irish descent. While we can only infer this of the Bourcicaults on account of their name, we know that the D'Arcys were an old Irish family, William's father, the solicitor, being the first of the clan to settle in England. It is even tempting to wonder if there had been some romantic connection between William D'Arcy and Miss Bourcicault, a connection which circumstances now allowed them to fulfil in marriage. At all events, left wifeless in mid-career, D'Arcy seems to have invited the widowed Mrs Nutting to join him.
When Dicksee painted Nina in 1902, five years into the marriage, D'Arcy was still enjoying his first fortune. Indeed, Dicksee was clearly at pains to create an image that did justice to the couple's wealth. His sitter's discreetly opulent dress of white embroidered silk sewn with emeralds, the rococo sofa and pink satin cushions on which she reclines, the hints of old silver and lacquered furniture behind her, and above all her aloof and mildly disdainful expression - all leave us in no doubt that here is someone in command of a very nice income and for whom servants come running. Perhaps the portrait was painted just in time. It was still only two years since D'Arcy had agreed to fund the search for oil in Persia, and the difficulties that beset the quest had as yet hardly emerged. But they were soon to be a source of great anxiety, and with an overdraft at the bank D'Arcy might well have thought twice about employing the fashionable, and probably expensive, Mr Dicksee to paint his wife.
On D'Arcy's death in 1917, his widow left Stanmore and many of its contents were sold. By far the most important, the Holy Grail tapestries, were bought in 1920 by the Duke of Westminster to adorn another neo-gothic mansion, Alfred Waterhouse's Eaton Hall, near Chester. Nina took a house in Tilney Street, Mayfair, just beside Dorchester House, which was soon to be demolished and rise again as the Dorchester Hotel in 1931. Here she continued to live in style. A footman stood behind every chair at the dinner table, and Queen Mary herself was in the habit of dropping in for tea.
Price Realized £11,250
signed and dated 'FRANK MILES 1884' (lower right)
oil on canvas
30 x 25 in. (75.9 x 63.5 cm.)
The actress Lillie Langtry, sometime mistress of Edward, Prince of Wales, (later King Edward VII), recalled in a newspaper interview in later life:
'It was through Lord Ranelagh and the painter Frank Miles that I was first introduced to London society. I went to London and was brought out by my friends. Among the most enthusiastic of these was Mr Frank Miles, the artist. I learned afterwards that he saw me one evening at the theatre, and tried in vain to discover who I was. He went to his clubs and among his artist friends declaring he had seen a beauty, and he described me to everybody he knew, until one day one of his friends met me and he was duly introduced. Then Mr Miles came and begged me to sit for my portrait. I consented, and when the portrait was finished he sold it to Prince Leopold. From that time I was invited everywhere and made a great deal of by many members of the royal family and nobility. After Frank Miles I sat for portraits to Millais and Burne-Jones and now Frith is putting my face in one of his great pictures.'
Miles, a companion of Oscar Wilde, painted several society ladies at the turn of the century, and was artist in chief to the magazine Life. The first recorded owner of the portrait, Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany, was a son of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. He died young, of haemophilia.
Monday, June 20, 2011
Price Realized £49,250
signed 'J. W. Waterhouse' (lower left)
oil on canvas
28 3/8 x 36½ in. (72.1 x 92.7 cm.)
The second half of the 1880s witnessed J. W. Waterhouse's most intense interest in landscape and outdoor genre subjects, and his fascination with effects of natural light. At this time he was in close contact with a group of landscape specialists, including William Logsdail, who was a neighbour at the Primrose Hill Studios, and Frank Bramley, who Waterhouse appears to have visited in Cornwall at least once. It was perhaps through this circle that Waterhouse came to appreciate the work of Jules Bastien Lepage. The pure landscapes and figure studies that Waterhouse made in the course of painting expeditions in the English countryside, and particularly when in Italy, are adapted from the principles of the French artist, containing an Impressionistic feeling for the quality of light, but also being carefully arranged to give a pleasing and decorative pictorial effect. Close parallels can be drawn between this work and Lepage's most famous painting Jeanne d'Arc Écoutant les Voix (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), particularly in the depiction of the trees and the crumbling stone walls. The observation of the wall, the foliage and the moss-covered yard is meticulous and highly accomplished, whilst the gestures of the figures are convincing and sensitively studied. The attention to realistic harmony of colour and naturalistic detail is paramount in these early pictures, which were to an extent eclipsed by the idealism of the nymphs and sorceresses that increasingly dominated his work from the 1890s onwards. The early works of Waterhouse bear comparison with the best work of the Newlyn painters, particularly Langley and Forbes, with whom Waterhouse was also associated at this time. By viewing Waterhouse as an artist connected to the ideals of the Newlyn School, rather than as a follower of Burne-Jones and Leighton, it is clear to see that the aims of his early work were innovative, modern and progressive and that he was striving towards a realism which was overtaken in later years by a quest for idealised beauty.
Gossips was painted only a year after Waterhouse's great early masterpiece St Eulalia of 1884 (Tate Britain). It predates Mariamne (private collection) by two years, The Lady of Shallot (Tate Britain) by three years and the first version of Ophelia (collection of Lord Lloyd Webber) by four years. The 1880s were, without doubt, Waterhouse's most innovative years when inspired ideas germinated and memorable paintings were undertaken.
We are grateful to Peter Trippi for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.
Price Realized £373,250
signed and dated 'F. C. Cowper 1918' (lower right) and inscribed 'F. Cadogan Cowper A.R.A./Edwardes Square Studios' (on the reverse of the frame)
oil on canvas
34 7/8 x 28 in. (88.4 x 71.1 cm.)
London, Royal Academy, 1918, no. 46.
Frank Cadogan Cowper was born at Wicken in Northamptonshire, where his maternal grandfather was rector. He studied art at the St John's Wood Art School and then spent five years in the Royal Academy Schools (1897 -1902) before entering the Cotswold studio of Edwin Austin Abbey. After six months working with this American muralist, who, like his friend John Singer Sargent, had taken up residence in England, Cowper completed his artistic education by studying for a while in Italy.
Although he exhibited widely, supporting the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Institute of Painters in Oil Colours, as well as sending to the Paris Salon, Cowper remained loyal to the RA, where he exhibited regularly from 1899 until his death nearly sixty years later. He became an Associate in 1907 and a full academician in 1934. Throughout his life he painted subject pictures, although as the taste for these declined in the early years of the twentieth-century he turned increasingly to portraits, specialising in glamorous and slightly fey likenesses of young women.
Cowper's early work is strongly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, but by about 1906 he was adopting a more Renaissance idiom, often with an emphasis on rich brocades to create a decorative effect. His RA diploma picture, Vanity, exhibited in 1907, is particularly significant since it borrows motifs from Giulio Romano's portrait of Isabella d'Este at Hampton Court, a picture which had inspired the young Burne-Jones half a century earlier. In 1908-10 he contributed to the murals illustrating Tudor history which a group of artists, supervised by his former master, Abbey, painted for the Commons' East Corridor in the Houses of Parliament.
Cowper spent the early part of his life in London, occupying studios in St John's Wood, Kensington and Chelsea. The Blue Bird was painted at 2 Edwardes Square Studios, a southerly outpost of the artists' colony in Holland Park that had sprung up in the later nineteenth-century under the leadership of the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Frederic Leighton.
At the end of the Second World War, Cowper moved to Gloucestershire, settling at Fairford, not far from where he had served his apprenticeship with Abbey. He is often seen as the last exponent of the Pre-Raphaelite tradition. As such, he was patronised by Evelyn Waugh, a pioneer of the Victorian revival, and included in The Last Romantics, the 1989 exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery that celebrated the survival of Pre-Raphaelite values into the age of Modernism. In fact he was responsible for one of the most astonishing examples, The Three Queens find Lancelot sleeping, exhibited at the RA as late as 1954.
The Blue Bird appeared at the RA in 1918, the last year of the Great War. Military images dominated the exhibition and the picture must have struck an incongruous note amid the portraits of generals, tributes to indomitable Tommies, romanticised accounts of 'bringing up the guns', and poignant war memorials. There seems to be no iconographical connection with Maurice Maeterlinck's play The Blue Bird, although Cowper must have been aware of the phenomenally successful staging of this 'transcendental pantomime' at the Haymarket Theatre, London, in 1909-11. The costumes and sets were by Frederick Cayley Robinson, who also illustrated the text when it was published by Methuen in 1911.
The picture does, however, undoubtedly relate to Madame d'Aulnoy's fairy tale of the same name, first published in 1697. This tells of a beautiful young princess, Fiordelisa, who falls in love with a handsome prince. He returns her love, but her wicked step-mother, wanting him to marry her own ill-favoured daughter, Turritella, shuts her up in a tower and attempts to blacken her name with her suitor. When the prince, refusing to marry Turritella, is transformed into a Blue Bird by her fairy godmother, he flies to the tower and holds amorous tête-à-têtes with Fiordelisa, bringing her presents of jewels as tokens of his affection.
Cowper shows the lovers enjoying one of these trysts, the princess holding a rope of pearls that the Blue Bird has evidently just given her. The story was retold by Andrew Lang in his Green Fairy Book (1892), one of the eleven 'coloured' Fairy Books that he produced for Longmans between 1889 and 1910. All were illustrated by H.J. Ford, and one of his designs for 'The Blue Bird' shows the same subject as that represented by Cowper's picture.
Formally, the picture is a good example of Cowper's neo-Renaissance-cum-neo-Pre-Raphaelite style, repeating the formula he had established with Vanity eleven years earlier and paying homage to Rossetti's half-length likenesses of beautiful models with exotic accessories, an idiom itself owing much to sixteenth-century Venetian painting. Like Rossetti, he gives his composition a decorative, almost heraldic, character and reduces the picture space to a narrow foreground plane. Both objectives are achieved by introducing a backdrop of the rich brocade that is almost a signature with Cowper.
This motif is derived from the so-called 'cloth of honour' that so often hangs behind the Virgin and Child in Italian Renaissance paintings (other works by Cowper establish the link beyond doubt). Meanwhile portraits of the Renaissance period, particularly those of the early German masters, inspire such details as the model's slashed red sleeves, her close fitting coif, and the chemise gathered across her neck. As for the Blue Bird's crown-shaped collar, intended to symbolise his royal status, this recalls medieval livery badges in which such collars are often worn by animals. If Cowper had an example in mind, however, it cannot have been the famous Dunstable Swan Jewel in the British Museum, which was not discovered until 1965. A more likely possibility is the Wilton Diptych, where badges in the form of white harts wearing crown collars are worn by all the angels and the figure of King Richard II. But even this did not enter the National Gallery until 1929.
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Price Realized £13,750
pencil, black and white chalk, within the artist's frame-lines, on buff paper
8½ x 5¾ in. (21.5 x 14.5 cm.)
A large quarto edition of William Caxton's translation of Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend was printed by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press in 1892. Burne-Jones made two illustrations, one showing souls being welcomed into heaven by angels, the other the Expulsion from Eden. The present drawing is a version of the former design, replaced in the book by a simpler and more telling treatment.
Price Realized £18,750
inscribed 'EBJ' (in monogram) 'to owl' (hieroglyph) (lower right)
pencil, on paper
14¾ x 16¾ in. (37.5 x 42.5 cm.)
Dating from about 1865, this handsome and long-lost drawing is an early study for Music, a painting of 1875-6 that was sold in these Rooms on 14 March 1997 (lot 56) and is now in the Lloyd Webber Collection (see Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters, exh. Royal Academy, London, 2003, cat. p. 297, no. 42, illustrated p. 78.). Another version, dating from 1877, is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
In the painting the composition is altered dramatically. The right-hand figure remains much the same but her companion is shown standing, and plays a fiddle rather than holding a psaltery.
The inscription has a certain poignancy. 'Owl' was Burne-Jones's affectionate nickname for the Anglo-Portuguese adventurer Charles Augustus Howell. In the mid-1860s they were on intimate terms and Howell acted as the artist's agent. Later, however, they became bitter enemies due to Howell's shady business methods and his meddling in Burne-Jones's affair with the Greek beauty Maria Zambaco.
Price Realized £4,375
pencil, on paper
5 x 4¾ in. (12.7 x 12 cm.)
The present study is for the so-called 'hill-fairies', one male and one female group, that Burne-Jones considered painting into the lateral sections of Arthur in Avalon. Dated to circa 1885 it corresponds to an entry for that year in his autograph work-record, preserved at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge: 'also I worked on Avalon, and made the designs for the Fairies in the hills of that picture'.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Price Realized £58,850
pencil with fixative, on paper
9¾ x 8½ in. (24.8 x 21.6 cm.)
The drawing is undated but is undoubtedly a work of the early 1860s. Confusingly, Marillier assigns it to 1861 in his check-list, but suggests in his narrative that it 'may have belonged to...a somewhat later period'. Virginia Surtees opts for 1861.
In any event, the drawing belongs to an intermediate phase of Rossetti's relationship with Jane Morris. It is a few years later than his 'discovery' of her in Oxford in 1857 and her appearance in his contemporary designs for the Union murals. But it is earlier than the well-known photographs for which she posed in his garden in Cheyne Walk in the summer of 1865 and the many studies of her from the early 1870s when they had embarked on their protracted and ultimately frustrating affair.
Lachesis was one of the three Fates in classical mythology, and is often depicted spinning the thread of life. It is tempting to imagine that Rossetti had two reasons for choosing the name for his drawing, not only considering it appropriate to Jane's action of sewing but seeing it as a hidden allusion to her power to determine his destiny on both personal and artistic levels.
The drawing belonged to J.P. Heseltine, a trustee of the National Gallery for nearly forty years and one of the most respected connoisseurs of his day, as well as being a talented artist himself. As a collector he was omnivorous, his paintings and drawings taking three days to disperse by auction in 1935, but the present sketch is typical of his taste in that he undoubtedly had an eye for studies of attractive female models. The collection included many works of this kind, by Liotard, Highmore, Boucher, Fragonard, Boily, Ingres and others. Another Pre-Raphaelite example, Millais' painting The Farmer's Daughter, was sold in these Rooms on 14 March 1997, lot 57.
Price Realized £4,000
Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal (1829-1862)
Study for 'Jephthah's Daughter'
pencil, on paper
8 3/8 x 4¾ in. (21.3 x 12 cm.)
L.S. Lowry, R.A.
This drawing is almost certainly a study for a picture of the agonised encounter between the Gilaedite warrior Jephthah and the daughter he has inadvertently agreed to sacrifice in return for victory by the children of Israel over the Ammonites. The story is related in the Book of Judges, chapter XI, and was re-told by Tennyson in his poem 'A Dream of Fair Women'. Handel's oratorio Jephthah (1751) was also popular with Victorian audiences.
Rich in strong and conflicting emotions, the story was precisely the kind of theme that appealed to the Pre-Raphaelites. Millais also treated it in a major canvas exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1867 (National Museum of Wales, Cardiff).
Although Siddal never completed a painting of the subject, a number of related studies are recorded. One is in the Birmingham Art Gallery and three are in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. These were included in the Siddal exhibition held at the Ruskin Gallery, Sheffield, in 1991 (nos. 23-26), three being illustrated in the catalogue.
Three sketches for figure subjects
all with inscriptions 'EBJ' (possibly by Charles Fairfax Murray)
pencil and scratching out, on paper
5½ x 7¾ in. (14 x 19.7 cm.) (3)
with The Stone Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where purchased by
L.S. Lowry, R.A.
These remarkably abstract drawings are early works, dating from about 1859-60. They must be sketches for figure subjects, but do not seem to correspond to any of Burne-Jones's more finished compositions of this period.
Price Realized £91,250
Head of Proserpine, unfinished
with inscription (on the reverse)
oil on canvas, unstretched
15¼ x 13¾ in. (38.7 x 34.9 cm.)
Wightwick Manor, Wolverhampton (National Trust), c. 1949-53, no. 47, lent by Helen Rossetti Angeli, William Michael Rossetti's daughter.
Rossetti's Proserpine, wrote H. C. Marillier in his monograph of 1899, 'has a very complicated history attached to it, and is without exception the most difficult puzzle in connection with his artistic work'. The composition, modelled by his muse and mistress Jane Morris, shows Proserpine in the gloomy depths of Hades, holding the pomegranate from which she has taken the fatal bite that will prevent her return to earth. It was a concept that had deep personal significance for Rossetti, and he reworked it obsessively in the early 1870s, determined to give it definitive expression and to capture the essence of Jane's beauty. As he put it to the landscape artist G. P. Boyce in 1873, 'I am hard at work on a picture of Proserpine, which I have begun and re-begun time after time, being resolved to make it the best I could do'. In all, eight versions seem to have been committed to canvas, although by no means all were finished. Some were abandoned at a preliminary stage, some were cut down to form independent pictures, and some do nothing more than flit like tantalising ghosts through the existing records. The best known version is the one in Tate Britain, completed for Frederick Leyland in 1874.
The present version, dating from 1872 according to an old inscription on the back, is clearly both unfinished and cut down from a larger canvas. This has been prepared with a ground applied with bold brush-strokes and, when dry, toned with a wash of transparent brownish paint. The outlines of the head have then been drawn in a stronger brown, possibly by an assistant working from the definitive study of 1871 now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Surtees 233A). Rossetti has then begun to work up the forms in more opaque oil paint, focussing particularly on the lips, which appear to be almost finished.