Friday, November 23, 2012
Thomas Seddon - PENELOPE 'THEN DURING THE DAY SHE WOVE THE LARGE WEB, WHICH AT NIGHT SHE UNRAVELLED' THE ODYSSEY
signed and dated l.r.: T Seddon 18/52
oil on canvas
91.5 by 71cm., 36 by 28in.
London, Royal Academy, 1852, no. 339;
London, Society of Arts, Thomas Seddon Memorial Exhibition, 1857
John P. Seddon, Memoir and Letters of the late Thomas Seddon, artist, By his Brother, 1859, pp. 16-17
This is the first recorded work from the hand of the short-lived and very remarkable Pre-Raphaelite artist Thomas Seddon. Thought of principally as a painter of eastern landscape subjects, the present beautiful and important work provides a fascinating clue to his artistic training and formative years. Although quite unlike the type of work for which he did become known, it reveals the instinctive creative talent and natural skill that he possessed. An unusual subject for an English painter to take in the 1850s, and therefore possibly reflecting his knowledge of contemporary French art, it shows Penelope looking out as the dawn breaks – her companions still sleeping – after a night spent undoing the previous day's work on a woven shroud. Her reason for doing this was because – according to the story told in Homer's Odyssey – during the long period during which her husband Odysseus was away, assumed by most to be dead, she remained faithful to him and, when pressed to give herself in marriage to another, always said she could not until the shroud was finished, a subterfuge which she maintained for ten years until a maid servant revealed how it was that the garment was never completed.
Seddon's family were cabinet-makers based in London's Gray's Inn Road, and as a young man Thomas Seddon was trained to design and make furniture. He seems to have decided to take a career as an artist in the late 1840s, receiving drawing lessons from Charles Lucy, and – in 1850 – working in Ford Madox Brown's studio, making copies of Brown's works including Chaucer at the Court of Edward III. Also in 1850, Seddon spent a summer season painting at Barbizon, making contact with French and British landscape painters.
The care with which Seddon prepared the mythological subject Penelope is emphasised by J.P. Seddon in his account of his brother's early career: 'He constructed a model of the apartment in which the heroine is represented, with an opening for the window, with the curtain partition, and with the loom itself; and he hung up a taper in order to study the effect of the double light; and at the British Museum and elsewhere he studied most carefully the costumes and manners of the Greeks'. John Seddon's verdict on the painting, which he makes clear had occupied his brother for an extended period, was that 'there is considerable simplicity in the composition but it has a fine breadth and harmony of rich colouring; and many of the accessories, such as the leopard's skin, are painted elaborately and powerfully'. The painting was in fact only completed once he had taken up his career as a painter in 1851, and as his first Academy exhibit in 1852 was clearly regarded as an opportunity to establish himself professionally. In the event it was little noticed, on account of its having been 'hung in the very top row, where it could only be seen with an operaglass, and attracted no attention', as the artist's brother reported. 'However', he went on, 'it was some comfort to his
friends to hear the strong terms of commendation in which it was noticed by connoisseurs sufficiently enterprising to search for it in its exalted position'.
In 1857, shortly after Seddon's tragically early death – from dysentery contracted in Cairo – a group of friends andadmirers raised funds to buy a work of his to present to the National Gallery (his undoubted masterpiece The Valley of Jehosophat (Tate Gallery) was bought for 400 guineas and thus became the first Pre-Raphaelite painting to enter a public collection). An exhibition was also staged, and on the occasion of its opening, John Ruskin gave an account of Seddon's career, explaining that 'he had turned away, of his own free will, from the paths of imagination to those of historical and matter-of-fact representation. [Thus visitors to the exhibition] would see, on the one side of the room, the noble picture "Penelope" [...] the first which Mr Seddon painted [and which] showed inventive genius of the highest order'. This was contrasted with the works that the artist had done in Egypt and Palestine, and in which, again according to Ruskin, 'he had sternly turned from the temptations of Fancy, and set out on a journey of danger and long self-denial, in order faithfully to record the scenery of the Holy Land'. CSN