Wednesday, August 14, 2013
William Bell Scott (1811-1890) King Arthur carried to the Land of Enchantment "Some men yet say, in many parts of England, that Arthur is not dead; but by the will of our Lord Jesu, carried into another place, that he will come again, and win the holy cross. And men say there is written on the tomb, "Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rex futurus." - Romance of Arthur.
William Bell Scott (1811-1890)
King Arthur carried to the Land of Enchantment
"Some men yet say, in many parts of England,
that Arthur is not dead;
but by the will of our Lord Jesu,
carried into another place, that he will come again,
and win the holy cross.
And men say there is written on the tomb,
"Arthurus, Rex quondam, Rex futurus."
- Romance of Arthur.
signed and dated 'W.B. Scott. 1847...1862' (lower left)
oil on canvas
34 x 45 in. (86.3 x 114.3 cm.)
According to legend, King Arthur, sorely wounded in his last battle with the treacherous Sir Mordred, was laid in a barge, attended by three queens, and taken to the Vale of Avalon, there to gain strength and be ready to return should his country need him. The story fascinated the Victorians and there are numerous versions in their painting and literature. Tennyson treated the story twice, the first account being illustrated by Daniel Maclise in the famous Moxon edition of the Laureate's poems (1857), and everyone now knows Burne-Jones's Arthur in Avalon (Museo de Arte, Ponce, Puerto Rico), the artist's swan-song and last testament, left unfinished at his death in 1898. If we want a more conventional rendering, James Archer's La Mort d'Arthur of 1860 (Manchester City Art Gallery) is as good as any.
William Bell Scott's picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1847. A decade earlier he had moved to London from his native Edinburgh, remaining until 1843 when he was appointed master of the Government School of Design in Newcastle. At the time he had only exhibited one work at the Academy, and that in 1842, before he had taken up his appointment. It is possible, therefore, that King Arthur was conceived as a belated demonstration of his skills, needed to sustain his authority. The picture is not mentioned in his Autobiographical Notes (1892), so we know nothing of the circumstances in which is was painted.
Scott was to become associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, but this was not launched for another year (1848) and the picture belongs to an older tradition. In fact it still adheres to the concept of history painting that the Pre-Raphaelites were to subvert. The Westminster Hall competition of 1843, held to find artists capable of decorating the new Houses of Parliament, had seen the apotheosis of this ideal, and both Scott and his elder brother, David, had entered without success. King Arthur looks back to the experience not only in terms of style but theme. Arthurian romance was not among the prescribed subjects for the contestants' cartoons, but then neither was it far from the areas that were permitted, namely English history and the works of Shakespeare, Spenser and Milton.
The picture also has echoes of the fairy painting that enjoyed such a vogue at this time, the use of the word 'enchantment' in the title being significant in itself. After Scott had settled in London he saw much of the group of young artists who (in some ways anticipating the PRB) called themselves 'The Clique'; and one of its members was the pre-eminent, if emotionally unstable, fairy painter Richard Dadd. In fact Scott and Dadd collaborated on the illustrations for Samuel Carter Hall's Book of British Ballads (1842-4), a volume that encapsulates the particular brand of popular Romanticism from which our picture springs.
Scott's inscription on the picture suggests that it failed to sell in 1847, returning to his studio where he retouched it in 1862. This would not necessarily have involved any great revision. Like Ford Madox Brown, another older associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, Scott remained a history painter at heart, this mindset emerging particularly in his greatest work, the murals depicting scenes from the history of Northumberland that he painted for Sir Walter and Lady Trevelyan at Wallington Hall between 1856 and 1861. As for Arthurian romance, this of course appealed powerfully to the Pre-Raphaelite circle with which he was now in touch, above all informing the intense medievalism in which D.G. Rossetti and his followers indulged in the late 1850s. Since Rossetti was Scott's chief contact among the Pre-Raphaelite community, it could well have been the ascendancy of this style that inspired him to re-work his old canvas in 1862.