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79 by 58.5 cm., 31 by 23 in.
inscribed on an old label on the backing board with lines from Tennyson's 'The Idylls of the King'
oil on canvas
William Imrie, of Mosley Hill, Liverpool;
His sale, Christie's, London, 28 June 1907, lot 141 (bought Boswell for 115 gns);
Edward Thorburn, Lansdowne House, Morpeth, Northumberland;
M.D.E. Clayton-Stamm, Virginia Water, Surrey (1963);
Patrick Clements Withers esq.;
London, The New Gallery, Summer Exhibition, 1891
Art Journal, 1891, p.189;
Magazine of Art, 1891, p.261, repr. p.263;
Steven Kosteren, 'The Pre-Raphaelite Art of John Melhuish Strudwick (1849-1937), The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Studies, 1:2 Fall 1988, pp.1-16, cat. no.20
Leaving her household and good father, climb'd
That eastern tower, and entering barr'd her door,
Stript off the case, and read the naked shield,
Now guess'd a hidden meaning in his arms,
Now made a pretty history to herself
Of every dint a sword had beaten in it.
Tennyson Idylls of the King
The story of Elaine -- the subject of John Melhuish Strudwick's 1891 painting -- is told by Tennyson in the seventh book of Idylls of the King, 'Lancelot and Elaine'. The poem opens with a description of her: 'Elaine the fair, Elaine the lovable, Elaine the lily maid of Astolat', and tells how she 'guarded the sacred shield of Lancelot; / Which first she placed where morning's earliest ray / Might strike it, and awake her with the gleam'. So powerful a hold did the shield have upon her -- because she loved Lancelot, and felt his presence when gazing upon it -- that she would withdraw during the day into her room, open the case that she had made to keep it in, so as to look at it and dream of Lancelot.
Elaine was the daughter of King Pelles, lord of Astolat. Some time before, Sir Lancelot, when travelling to a joust at Camelot, had come to the castle of Astolat and had been received by Pelles and his two sons and daughter. Lancelot had exchanged his shield with that of Pelles's son Sir Torre -- so that Lancelot might appear at the joust without being recognised. This was how his shield, marked with blows from many combats, became the possession of Elaine. Falling in love with Lancelot, she besought him to allow her to serve and follow him. After Lancelot's departure -- at which moment he unkindly refused to take his leave of her -- Elaine was comforted by her father and brothers, each of whom attempted to dissuade her from her hopeless love, reminding her also of his duplicitous love for Guenevere. However, Elaine refused to believe the account she was given, but simply requested that preparations should be made for her funeral, asking that her body might be taken by barge to Camelot and to the court of King Arthur. She wrote a letter to Lancelot, which was to be given to him after her death: 'I, sometimes call'd the maid of Astolat, / Come, for you left me taking no farewell, / Hither to take my last farewell of you. / I loved you, and my love had no return, / And therefore my true love has been my death'.
The tragic story of Elaine was one that struck a chord in the Victorian imagination, for it was the tale of a loving and dutiful daughter and sister -- and one who had early assumed responsibilities as the only woman in the family, her mother having died -- but who abandoned the convention of respect for her loving family as the imperatives of love overtook her. Her father, who had indulged her, was powerless to persuade her to give up a passion that could have no happy outcome. In the context of Victorian society, which placed such reliance on the bonds which held family life together -- and within which an hierarchical system of respect and honour operated -- the figure of Elaine stood as a morality tale which warned that all proprieties were at risk as a consequence of unwise love.
Tennyson's 'Lancelot and Elaine', as given in the definitive version of Idylls of the King, originated in the poem 'Elaine', which was one of the four first parts to be written, and which were published in 1859. Tennyson drew on Malory's treatment of the legend in Morte D'Arthur, the poem cycle adored by Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Morris in the 1850s, and the inspiration and narrative text of the Oxford Union mural scheme of 1857. Tennyson, however, elaborated and reset the tale, so as to emphasise the alienation of Elaine from her father and brothers. As Debra Mancoff has written, 'Elaine did not simply die for love, she died in defiance of her proper place and her father's counsel. A streak of will flawed her feminine nature, and self-destruction, rather than Lancelot's rejection, caused her untimely and unnecessary death' (The Return of King Arthur -- The Legend through Victorian Eyes, London, 1995, p.78). The subject of Elaine was only occasionally treated by artists of the Pre-Raphaelite circle; Arthur Hughes's Elaine with the Armour of Lancelot (private collection; illustrated Leonard Roberts, Arthur Hughes -- His Life & Works, Woodbridge, 1997, p.92), of 1867, is one example. Also in 1867, Edward Henry Corbould painted an elaborate watercolour of Elaine's dead body being rowed to Camelot (ex Maas Gallery, London; illustrated Mancoff, op. cit., p.81) At about the same time, Gustave Doré was preparing his engraving which showed the funeral barge, "And the dead, Oar'd by the dumb".
In Strudwick's version of the subject, Elaine is shown in the private apartment of her father's castle of Astolat. Seated on a carved wooden coffer, she looks intently at the shield of Lancelot, which she has placed on a prie-dieu (as if it were some kind of holy relic). With it is shown part of the embroidered drapery that Elaine had made to keep and protect the shield. Lying at her feet is a lily, the flower of martyrdom with which her legend has been associated since Malory told her story in Morte D'Arthur, and from which she too her name the Lily Maid of Astolat. In the treatment of her anguished expression, and in the way she clasps her hands, Strudwick captures the agonising torment of one who is hopelessly in love, and thus anticipates the tragic consequences of that love.
Strudwick is a most intriguing artistic figure, and one for whom a full biographical account is lacking. The principal source of information about him comes from an article in the April 1891 Art Journal by George Bernard Shaw. The painter was born in Clapham, south London, and educated at St Saviour's Grammar School. It seems that he succeeded in resisting his parents' intention that he should follow a career in business, enrolling instead at the South Kensington school of art, and later at the Royal Academy Schools. As a young man he received encouragement from John Pettie, who admired his sense of colour, and for a period Strudwick attempted to paint in a free and dashing style. Strudwick's works were repeatedly rejected by the selection committees of the Royal Academy, and he depended largely on the Dudley Gallery for opportunities to exhibit. In the early 1870s he was employed as a studio assistant by J.R.S. Stanhope and later by Burne-Jones -- both of whom remained close friends of Strudwick's to the end of their lives.
In 1876 Strudwick's painting Song without Words (private collection) was exhibited at the Royal Academy -- the only time he ever managed to show there. This caused some degree of excitement among those who were sympathetic to manifestations of latter-day Pre-Raphaelitism, with critics and members of the public wondering how such a quaint and yet technically demanding work could have been undertaken by an otherwise unheard of artist. In reply to the accusation that Strudwick was merely an imitator of an historical style of painting, Shaw wrote: 'There is nothing of the fourteenth century about his work except that depth of feeling and passion for beauty which are common property to all who are fortunate enough to inherit them' (Art Journal, 1891, p.101). The sale of Song without Words marked the critical turning-point in the painter's fortunes. He 'promptly hired a studio for himself; and since that time his vocation as an artist has never been challenged. There is no such thing as an unsold picture by Strudwick; and so the story of his early struggles may be said to end there' ('J.M. Strudwick', Art Journal, 1891, pp.97-101). From this time forward Strudwick gained a following among a circle of collectors and connoisseurs who appreciated the ornate complexity and originality of a style of art that was alien to the gaudy and mechanical confections which were so often seen in the public exhibitions of the period, and who furthermore were patient enough to wait for new works by an artist whose method of production was agonisingly slow.
Two Liverpool collectors -- William Imrie and George Holt -- were to become his most loyal supporters. Elaine belonged to the former, who was a wealthy ship-builder and ship owner. Imrie's remarkable collection, partly dispersed in 1907, included Rossetti's Veronica Veronese (Bancroft Collection, Wilmington Society of Arts, Delaware), as well as Rossetti's oil replica of the subject Dante's Dream at the Time of the Death of Beatrice, originally made for William Graham (Dundee City Museum). Imrie also owned Burne-Jones's The Tree of Forgiveness (Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight). With these important works kept at Imrie's house, Holmstead, Moseley Hill, were as many as eight works by Strudwick. These were, in addition to the present painting, Passing Days, Evensong, The Ramparts of God's House, Saint Cecilia, The Ten Virgins, and works entitled "The Tuneful Strings wake Memories" and "Thy music, faintly falling, dies away / Thy dear eyes dream that love will live for aye". Paintings from William Imrie's collection provided all the illustrations to G.B. Shaw's article. Of Strudwick's art as represented in that piece, Shaw could write: 'The execution of these easel paintings is smooth, and the method of representation simply drawing on the flat surfaces and colouring it: Holbein, Hogarth, Bellini were not more exact and straight-forward than Strudwick. The pictures are finished up to the point at which further elaboration would add nothing to the artistic value of the picture; and there the work stops, not a stroke being wasted' (loc. cit., p.100).