Description: Thomas Matthews Rooke, R.W.S. (1842-1942) Herod's Feast signed and dated 'T M Rooke/1895' (lower right) and signed again and inscribed 'NB The black slip border/is fastened to the picture/it must be free from frame/in removing picture/from frame T.M. Rooke/R.W.S./.../.../London' and further inscribed and numbered 'No. 1/HEROD'S FEAST' (on the backboard) pencil and watercolour, with gum arabic, heightened with bodycolour and with scratching out, on two sheets of paper, joined 29½ x 61½ in. (75 x 156.2 cm.) In the original carved and gilt oak frame, probably designed by the artist
Exhibited: Bought from the International Exhibition, Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1907, and by descent to the present owner.
Provenance: Bought from the International Exhibition, Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1907, and by descent to the present owner.
Notes: VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 17.5% on the buyer's premium.
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T.M. Rooke was a versatile artist, known to art history as Burne-Jones's longest-serving studio assistant, one of Ruskin's topographical draughtsmen, the embodiment of Bedford Park aestheticism, and a pillar of the Arts and Crafts movement. This unusually large watercolour, however, shows him as an exponent of biblical themes. He had painted such pictures at least since the late 1870s. Examples are The Story of Ruth (Tate Britain), a Chantrey purchase of 1877, and King Ahab's Coveting (Russell-Cotes Art Gallery, Bournemouth) of 1879. Herod's Feast is nearly two decades later, appearing at the Old Water Colour Society in 1895, when Rooke was fifty-three. He had been elected an Associate of the Society four years earlier, and would become a full member in 1903.
The picture illustrates the famous story told in St Matthew's Gospel, chapter 14. John the Baptist had forbidden Herod to have carnal relations with his sister-in-law, Herodias, and been imprisoned for his pains. Although Herod himself was reluctant to execute the prophet, fearing a public outcry, Herodias had no such scruples. When, therefore, her daughter, Salome, danced before the King at his birthday feast, and Herod, delighted by her performance, rashly promised to giver her anything she wanted, Salome, having been primed by her mother beforehand, asked for the Baptist's head. Although Herod immediately regretted his promise, it was too late. John was beheaded and his head presented on a charger to the triumphant Herodias.
According to a letter from Rooke of which a transcript survives, he was inspired to paint the picture by hearing Sir George Macfarren's oratorio St John the Baptist at Exeter Hall in the Strand. First performed in 1873, the piece was one of the most popular productions of this blind composer and friend of Mendelssohn.
But there was probably more to the matter than this; after all, the subject's combination of two images, those of the femme fatale and the severed head, had given it a unique appeal to the Symbolist imagination. For some forty years it inspired artists across Europe, as well as poets, novelists and the composer Richard Strauss, whose opera Salome enjoyed a succès de scandale when premiered at Dresden in 1905.
For Rooke, two examples of this phenomenon probably stood out. He would undoubtedely have seen Gustave Moreau's sensational account of the subject, L'Apparition, when it was shown at the Grosvenor Gallery's inaugural show in 1877, at which his own master, Burne-Jones, scored such a great success. And there may well have been talk in Burne-Jones's studio of Oscar Wilde's play Salome when it was published with Beardsley's outrageous illustrations in 1894. Although Rooke's approach is entirely different, it is interesting that his picture is almost exactly contemporary. And although in a sense irrelevant, it may be added that during its exhibition at the OWCS Wilde was tried and sent to prison.
The frame was probably designed by Rooke and is a minor Arts and Crafts masterpiece in itself.