Description: The Knight's Bridal
signed and dated 'J. Smetham 1864' (lower right) and further signed, inscribed and dated 'The Knights Bridal. J. Smetham 1864.' (on the reverse)
oil on board
13 1/2 x 9 in. (34.3 x 22.8 cm.)
Artist or Maker: James Smetham (1821 - 1889)
Notes: Although inscribed 'The Knight's Bridal' on the reverse, this painting appears to be the prime version of a The Wedding of Sir Gawain, the study for which was included in the sale of Victorian pictures at Christie's, London, 25 November 2003.
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The wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell is one of the most popular stories of late medieval England, adapted by Chaucer ('The Wife of Bath's Tale' is very similar) and John Gower, and existing in numerous retellings by lesser known authors. It was originally penned by an anonymous hand, and now exists as a sixteenth-century manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
The wedding is a 'loathly lady' tale, so called because its central figure is a lady of humble origin, whose form transforms from hideous to desirable upon her marriage to a knight. His courtesy in accepting her as his bride is frequently seen as proof of merit and wins him political power. Ragnall can dictate such a bargain because only she has the magic power to release Gawain's lord and master, King Arthur, from the threat of the thuggish interloper Gromer. Gawain further illustrates his ideal knighthood by allowing Ragnall to decide that pivotal question - 'whate wemen love best'. In conceding to her on this point, he secures their mutual happiness; she is transformed into the ideal wife, and can accordingly use her charms to facilitate a reconciliation between Arthur and Gromer.
Smetham is an unusual figure in the history of art; the son of a Wesleyan minister, he rejected the pursuit of minute particulars which defined Pre-Raphaelitism; instead he envisaged a magical world suffused with colour. He took his subjects from the Bible, literature and fable, sometimes adopting a Symbolist bent, as in The rose of dawn (see Christie's, London, The Forbes Collection of Victorian Pictures and Works of Art, 19-20 February 2003, lot 215).
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