The subject of this picture, and its exhibition history, have proved elusive. Initially it was thought to depict the return of the prodigal son, but the figure to the right looks too kempt for someone cast amongst swine. A possible clue comes in the hieroglyphs behind the figure to the left. These depict corn being harvested and stored by Egyptians. Could the figures then represent Pharoah, rising from his throne, and Joseph, in his coat of many colours? Joseph had interpreted Pharoah's dream of seven lean cattle devouring seven thin ones, and seven thin ears of corn devouring seven fat ones as a premonition that seven years of plenty would be followed by seven years of famine. To prevent hardship, grain was harvested and stored in readiness and Joseph became Pharoah's chief steward. The episode was taken to prefigure Christ's feeding of the five thousand.
Webbe is an obscure figure on the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite movement whose work is now being seen in the rooms with some regularity. He received his artistic training in Dusseldorf which may explain the purity of form in his work which echoes the Nazarene tradition. He returned to England in 1853, and by 1855 had settled at Niton, on the Isle of Wight, staying there until 1860 when he returned to London. He exhibited at the R.A., the British Institution, and the Society of British Artists in Suffolk Street. He also supported a number of provincial institutions.
There is a marked similarity in style and subject matter in his work to that of his friend and sometime neighbour in London, William Gale. Both travelled to the Holy Land in 1862, probably in each other's company, and subsequently exhibited eastern subjects. Prior to that, Webbe executed several Pre-Raphaelite landscapes, startling in the intensity of their detail.
We are grateful to Melva Croal, Curator of Manchester City Art Gallery, for her help in preparing this catalogue entry.