The Queen of Hearts is a delightful picture from the artist’s playful imagination. Its heroine is his fiancée, Evelyn Pyke-Nott, who he was to marry three years after this picture was painted. They met at the Royal Academy schools. Clearly already deeply in love with her, Byam Shaw has presented her as the Queen of Hearts from the children’s nursery rhyme. All gallery visitors at that date would have known this piece of verse, having been raised on the illustrations of Randolph Caldecott. Presented in a frame of the artist’s own design, she steps out from a pack of playing cards, moving forward as if to break through the picture plane. To anchor the narrative further, her sister, the artist Isabel Codrington, holds a plate of jam tarts behind her.
In some ways the rhyme is incidental, however. Byam Shaw’s purpose, in the spirit of the Aesthetic movement, is to create a beautiful picture. He does this by emulating the pictorial precedent set by Rossetti and the Old Masters. Since the National Gallery’s acquisition of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait in 1843 (fig. 1), the picture had inspired numerous artists, especially the Pre-Raphaelites. This was recently explored in the exhibition Reflections: Van Eyck and the Pre-Raphaelites, National Gallery, London, 2017-2018. The Queen’s head-dress and the way she clutches the folds of her dress are a direct reference to the Arnolfini bride, as are the relative positions of the artist (and consequently the viewer) and the sitter. For a more recent precedent Byam Shaw has looked to Rossetti, specifically in the spatial flatness found in many of his pictures such as Regina Cordium (1860, South African National Gallery, Cape Town), and his use of heraldic pattern. The crowded use of heads is another Rossettian trope as seen in The Beloved (The Bride), (fig. 2, 1865, Tate, London). Byam Shaw has also subsumed religious iconography. Some critics have likened the Queen of Hearts to Mary, Queen of Heaven, with her head-dress serving as a halo, and the wand she holds echoing a martyr’s palm. This reinforces the sense of virtue associated with the figure, and further sets her apart from the chattering crowd behind.
The picture was extremely well received when exhibited and was the first picture in which, according to the artist’s friend Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, 'he sprang suddenly out in his extraordinarily brilliant and original style'. This creativity led to endeavour in a number of different fields. As well as painting, Byam Shaw became a noted illustrator, and a designer of tapestry and stained glass. As a muralist he was commissioned to embellish the Palace of Westminster, and chose as his subject The Entry of Queen Mary with Princess Elizabeth into London. He also made several designs for the theatre. In 1910, with his friend Rex Vicat Cole, he established an Art School in Kensington, but in 1919 after years of overwork he died young at the age of 46. He is represented in numerous museum collections. The Blessed Damozel is in the Guildhall, while Jezebel is in the Russell Cotes Museum, Bournemouth. Perhaps his best known picture is Boer War, 1900-1901, Last Summer Things were Greener, now in Birmingham, a picture which around the time of the Great War enjoyed huge popularity.
The happy family life Byam Shaw enjoyed with his wife was reflected in the success of his children. His son Glen (1904-1986) became an actor alongside his school friend, Sir John Gielgud. He later became a distinguished director of the Old Vic, Stratford and Sadler's Wells. His brother James (or Jim) (1903-1992), is still remembered by many in the art world as a connoisseur of Old Master Drawings. From 1937-1968 he was a Director of Colnaghi and there helped numerous museums bolster their collections. Foremost amongst these were the British Museum and the Ashmolean. Not only did he correct misattributions, but he also sold them drawings at a minimal mark up. He wrote, notably on Guardi and Tieopolo, and finished his career as Assistant Curator of Pictures at his old college, Christ Church, Oxford.