Dante tells the story of Paolo and Francesca, lovers as famous and ill-fated as Hero and Leander, Eloise and Abelard or Romeo and Juliet, in the fifth Canto of the Divine Comedy. Francesca da Rimini fell in love with Paolo Malatesta, to whose deformed elder brother, Giancotto, she was married. They are encountered by Dante, who had actually known both Paolo and Francesca's brother, in the second circle of Hell, where carnal lovers are punished, and Francesca tells him how their reading of a romance about Queen Guinevere and Sir Lancelot had precipitated their affair. As she puts it in Laurence Binyon's translation,
One day together, for pastime, we read
Of Launcelot, and how Love held him in thrall.
We were alone, and without any dread.
Sometimes our eyes, at the word's secret call,
Met, and our cheeks a changing colour wore.
But it was one page only that did all.
When we read how that smile, so thirsted for,
Was kissed by such a lover, he that may
Never from me be separated more
All trembling kissed my mouth...
...We read no more that day.
The story ended tragically in about 1288, when the jealous husband discovered the lovers together and stabbed them both to death. The account of their tribulations affects Dante so powerfully that he faints out of pity, 'like a body falling dead'.
For obvious reasons, the story enjoyed an enormous international vogue during the Romantic period. Some artists focused on the moment when the lovers realised their mutual passion, the book that had so inflamed their feelings lying discarded on the ground beside them, while others preferred to show them circling endlessly in the winds of Hell. Among those who treated the subject were Flaxman (1807), Ingres (from 1819, the same year that Keats treated it in a sonnet), Blake (1824-7; fig. 1), J.A. Koch (in the Cassino Massimo, 1825-8), Delacroix (1826), Ary Scheffer (1835), C.W. Cope (1837), William Dyce (1837; fig. 2), G.F. Watts (from 1845; fig. 3), D.G. Rossetti (from the late 1840s; fig. 4), the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Alexander Munro (1852) and Frederic Leighton (1860-61).
Dicksee's painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895 and is thus a product of a different, though related, artistic movement, namely the late nineteenth-century attempt to revive Pre-Raphaelite themes and sentiment in terms of a more academic visual vocabulary. The phenomenon is perhaps best exemplified by other artists, such as Dicksee's slightly older contemporary J.W. Waterhouse or the rather younger John Byam Shaw, whose ambitious illustration to Rossetti's poem 'The Blessed Damozel' (Guildhall Art Gallery) appeared at the R.A. the same year as Dicksee's Paolo and Francesca. But although Dicksee was not quite so single-minded, deliberately working in a number of different genres, many of his most impressive performances had their roots in the Pre-Raphaelite past. They include his early masterpiece Harmony (Tate Britain), bought for the Chantrey Bequest in 1877; the ultra-romantic Chivalry of 1885, sold in these Rooms as part of the Forbes Collection in February 2003; and, not least, The End of the Quest (Leighton House, Kensington), a wonderfully retardataire evocation of courtly love that appeared at the R.A. as late as 1921.
Dicksee's Paolo and Francesca finds a close parallel in the treatment of the same subject by Charles Edward Hallé (1846-1919) that was sold in these Rooms on 13 March 1992, lot 89. The son of Sir Charles Hallé, the pianist and conductor, Hallé was seven years older than Dicksee and belongs to a slightly earlier phase of the romantic tradition. He had trained in Paris with a pupil of Ingres, known Rossetti, and was closely associated with Burne-Jones as a director of the Grosvenor and New Galleries, of which Burne-Jones was the undisputed star. His Paolo and Francesca is therefore more a matter of survival than revival, but the comparisons with Dicksee's canvas are still striking. It was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1888 (the Gallery's inaugural exhibition), only seven years before Dicksee's version was unveiled. It is not only treats the identical subject, but does so on a similarly ambitious scale. And both works betray their authors' debt to Venetian painting, the elusive 'secret' of which Hallé spent many years studying.
Dicksee sent four pictures to the 1895 Royal Academy; the others were a pair of Devonshire landscapes and one of his modern-life psychodramas entitled A Reverie. Several critics saw Paolo and Francesca as a throwback to the past. According to the Art Journal, it was 'conceived and painted in a fashion that almost suggests the Pre-Raphaelites', while F.G. Stephens, writing as usual in the Athenaeum, felt that it hardly matched the level reached many years previously by Leighton and Rossetti. He liked the picture's colour ('bright and attractive'), but felt it needed 'profounder pathos, a deeper sort of art, and more solid qualities to justify its pretentions as a work of thoughtful and genuine purpose'.
Claude Phillips said much the same in the Academy. The picture was 'a well-balanced academic composition' and 'a more than respectable achievement' in which 'a strenuous...effort is made to obtain beauty of colour by the careful grouping of tints'. But it was 'wholly inadequate as a rendering of this moment of passion's climax in the famous love-tragedy'. The Times thought the picture 'a carefully-studied variation upon a theme on which it seems to be de rigeur that every painter should at one time or another try his hand'.
A small watercolour version, dated 1894, was in Sotheby's sale of the Leverhulme Collection at Thornton Manor, Wirral, 26-28 June 2001, lot 400. The composition here is in reverse but is otherwise essentially the same. A fine chalk study for the head of Francesca is reproduced in the Magazine of Art, 1895, facing p. 244.
Dicksee's polished and efficient style appealed to wealthy self-made men. Lord Leverhulme, the soap-manufacturer, owned several examples of his work, one of which, The Magic Crystal (1894), is still in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight; and Chivalry was commissioned by Sir John Aird, the contractor who completed the Manchester Ship Canal and built the great dam at Aswan. Paolo and Francesca entered the collection of William Knox D'Arcy (1849-1917) of Stanmore Hall, near Harrow.
D'Arcy is chiefly known to students of Victorian art as the man who commissioned the Holy Grail tapestries from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, thus financing one of the supreme achievements of the Arts and Crafts movement, but there was much more to him than this. Born at Newton Abbot in Devonshire, the son of a solicitor, and educated at Westminster School, D'Arcy left England in 1866 at the age of seventeen. His family had decided to emigrate to Australia, and when his father set up a practice in Rockhampton, Queensland, young William joined the firm. Through professional contacts, he was soon speculating in land and goldmining, joining a syndicate to develop Ironstone Mountain (later renamed Mount Morgan) in 1882. By 1886 he was a director and major shareholder of the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company, and three years later he returned to England, a multi-millionaire.
Nor was this the end of D'Arcy's entrepreneurial career. In 1900 he agreed to fund a search for oil and minerals in Persia. Drilling began in 1903, and for some years the results were disappointing. D'Arcy had to find increasingly large sums of money to cover costs, and by 1908 he was close to bankruptcy. On 26 May that year, however, the excavators finally struck oil, and in April 1909 the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was formed, with D'Arcy as a director. Having made and nearly lost one fortune, he was on the brink of making another. Ultimately the Anglo-Persian Oil Company would become British Petroleum, and D'Arcy may be regarded as the founder of the modern oil industry in the Middle East.
On his return to England in 1889, D'Arcy brought with him a wife, Elena, a Rockhampton girl he had married in 1872, together with their five children, two sons and three daughters. He was determined to enjoy his wealth and live life in the fast lane. He had soon acquired not only a substantial London house, 42 Grosvenor Square, but Stanmore Hall as a country retreat within easy reach of the metropolis and an estate in Norfolk, Bylaugh Park, for the shooting. The D'Arcys entertained lavishly; Melba and Caruso were among the stars who performed at their private concerts, and they had their own enclosure on Epsom racecourse.
Stanmore is the house for which D'Arcy is remembered today. A neo-gothic pile of 1847 by J.M. Derick, it was remodelled for its new owner by the Ipswich architect Brightwen Binyon, while Morris & Co. were commissioned to furnish it throughout. Morris himself, disdainful of such a thoroughgoing capitalist as D'Arcy, took little interest in the scheme except for working closely with Burne-Jones to produce the Holy Grail tapestries, which hung in the dining-room and were eventually completed in 1894. Whether the two old friends were aware of the irony of a patron like D'Arcy enabling them to realise their Arthurian dreams, we do not hear, but it can hardly have escaped them. The rest of the work was overseen by Morris's chief assistant, John Henry Dearle, although other members of the Arts and Crafts fraternity were closely involved. Much of the furniture was by George Jack, chimneypieces and many decorative details were designed by W.R. Lethaby, and stained glass was contributed by Louis Davis.
It was presumably on the strength of his purchase of Paolo and Francesca that D'Arcy commissioned Dicksee to paint his second wife, Nina, in 1902. The portrait, exhibited at that year's Royal Academy, was sold in these Rooms on 23 November 2005, lot 23. Paolo and Francesca almost certainly remained in D'Arcy's collection until his death in 1917, when his widow left Stanmore Hall and many of its contents were dispersed. It was certainly not among the pictures that she retained and were sold by her executors at Christie's on 8 December 1950.