Thursday, July 31, 2014

Study for 'La Belle Iseult'

William Morris (1834-1896) 
Study for 'La Belle Iseult'
pencil, pen and brown ink and wash on paper
22 ¾ x 9 1/8 in. (57.8 x 23.3 cm.)

This is a study for Morris’s painting La Belle Iseult of 1858 (fig. 1). The picture is his only completed easel painting and the most important product of the period in the late 1850s when he was struggling to become a painter under the heady, autocratic influence of D.G. Rossetti. The attempt caused him nothing but frustration and disappointment. His true talent lay in handicraft, and would only find fulfillment with the furnishing of Red House, built for him by Philip Webb at Upton in Kent in 1859, and the launching of the firm of ‘fine art workmen’, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., in 1861.

Morris’s painting has sometimes been entitled Queen Guenevere, but this is wrong. The ‘bracket’ curled up on the bed identifies the subject as another Arthurian heroine, La Belle Iseult, whose fraught relationship with Sir Tristram looms so large in medieval secular literature and was treated at length by Malory in the Morte d’Arthur. The story seems to have had some special significance for Morris; it inspired no fewer than three other compositions that he worked on at this time, including his contribution to the famous murals that Rossetti and his followers painted in the Oxford Union in 1857-8.

The model for La Belle Iseult was Jane Burden, the ostler’s daughter whom the artists ‘discovered’ in Oxford, who married Morris in April 1859, and whom Rossetti, her lover, immortalised, ensuring her status as the supreme Pre-Raphaelite ‘stunner’. It is unlikely, however, that Jane sat for our drawing, which was probably drawn from a professional model or, more likely still, a lay-figure. The design of the dress differs in the painting and drawing, as does the position of the model’s hands. In the painting they have a slightly ‘aimless’ quality; and in the painting Morris attempts to rectify this by giving them something to ‘do’, namely hold the two ends of a belt which is being fastened. Yet even in the finished work we sense that this detail was never fully resolved.

The drawing has belonged to two distinguished Pre-Raphaelite scholars. Its previous owner was Janet Camp Troxell of New Haven, Connecticut, who began publishing books and articles on the Rossettis in the 1930s and formed what has been described as ‘the outstanding private Pre-Raphaelite collection in the United States and with few rivals anywhere else’. Virginia Surtees acquired it when the Troxell Collection was dispersed by Agnew’s.


£5,000 - £8,000
($8,495 - $13,592)

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