This is the first recorded painting executed by Thomas Seddon, a lesser known Pre-Raphaelite, owing to his tragic death at thirty-five after contracting dysentery in Cairo. Seddon was the son of a London cabinet-maker (his brother John owned King René's Honeymoon cabinet, see lot 24) and entered the family business at sixteen, before travelling to Paris in 1841 to study ornamental art. Seddon, however, harboured artistic ambition, most likely instigated through his friendship with Ford Madox Brown which began during his studies in Paris. Brown appeared to be a lasting influence upon Seddon, and he worked in Brown’s studio for a time during the 1850s.
A nearly fatal brush with rheumatic fever in 1850 triggered a period of religious fervour which led him to travel with William Holman Hunt to the Holy Land in 1853-1854. The trip was undertaken partly in order to bring further topographical and anthropologic veracity to their works. The pair spent time in both Egypt and Jerusalem, where Seddon painted his masterpiece, Jerusalem and the Valley of Jehoshaphat from the Hill of Evil Council (1854-1855, Tate, London), which depicts the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. Following Seddon’s death in 1856 a group of friends raised the funds to buy this work for the National Gallery, thus becoming the first Pre-Raphaelite painting to enter a public collection.
This picture was painted two years prior to his trip to the Holy Land and deals with the mythological subject of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. During the tale Penelope spends twenty years faithfully waiting for the return of her husband, who is suspected by all to be dead at sea. During this period she comes up with an elaborate scheme to delay her marriage to one of the many suitors vying for her hand. Penelope claims that she will marry only when she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. However, every night she undoes the day’s work, to further delay the suitors' advances.
Seddon chooses to depict Penelope as she works at her secret night-time shift, with dawn visibly breaking through the window and her female attendants sleeping soundly in the room behind her. In Memoir and Letters of the Late Thomas Seddon, an account of his early career written by the artist’s brother, John Pollard Seddon emphasises the lengths his brother went to in order to create the painting by carefully studying Greek costume at the British Museum, and setting up a model of the apartment where Penelope sits weaving in his studio. The painting wasn’t completed until 1851 and was the artist's first work to be displayed at the Royal Academy the following year.