John Roddam Spencer Stanhope was the son of Walter Spencer Stanhope, a wealthy landowner from Yorkshire, and Lady Elizabeth Coke, the youngest daughter of the 1st Earl of Leicester. His aristocratic lineage set him apart from many of his peers in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, and being of independent means meant he never had to rely on selling his work to support himself. Following his education at Rugby and Christ Church, Oxford, Stanhope was resolute in his desire to become an artist, despite facing parental opposition. He was introduced to G. F. Watts by Dr Henry Acland, one of his Oxford tutors, who was a close friend of John Ruskin. Through this connection Stanhope received informal training from Watts, assisting him with his mural commissions and accompanying him on trips to Italy and Greece. Watts, however, was not a particularly compelling teacher and Stanhope looked to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for inspiration. In 1857, Rossetti invited him to paint a scene for the Oxford Union murals; Sir Gawaine and the Damsels at the Fountain. Stanhope worked next to Burne-Jones, and they developed a lifelong friendship that came to have a significant impact on Stanhope’s art.
This picture was executed in 1863, early in Stanhope’s career. He takes Shakespeare as his source material, painting Act III, Scene II of Romeo & Juliet, a scene charged with high emotional tension. Juliet begins the passage impatiently waiting for night to fall so that she can meet Romeo to celebrate their marriage night. The arrival of her nurse extinguishes her anticipation as she bears the news of Tybalt’s death at the hands of Romeo, and his subsequent banishment from the city. Juliet is thus thrown into despair as she experiences the clash of romantic love with familial duty. Juliet is depicted gazing out of the open casement, whilst her nurse sits with a grave expression of foreboding. Cords lie in a tangle at her feet that the nurse had procured at Romeo’s behest in order to aid his ascent to Juliet’s chambers to consummate the marriage. Stanhope renders the scene in a rich and sumptuous colour palette, characteristic of his style. Shortly before his death Burne-Jones remarked he felt Stanhope to be 'the greatest colourist of the century'.
Juliet’s pose in front of the stained glass window coupled with the meticulously rendered interior details are particularly evocative of Millais’s 1851 work, Mariana (fig. 1, Tate, London); which similarly depicts a Shakespearian subject drawn from Measure for Measure. Mariana was exhibited by Millais at the Royal Academy in 1851 where Stanhope may feasibly have seen it, and subsequently been moved to incorporate the compositional structure and style into his own work. The ebony and ivory inlay chair that the nurse sits upon was a prop borrowed by Stanhope from Holman Hunt, and included in Hunt's work Il Dolce far Niente (1866, sold in these Rooms, 19 February 2003, lot 26). The influence of Burne-Jones can also be seen in the arrangement of seven small mirrors set into a circular wooden frame, which Burne-Jones had included in many of his depictions of early medieval interiors. A triptych of the Madonna and Child hangs on the wall, which Stanhope based loosely on a fourteenth century altarpiece by Duccio that was held in the National Gallery, London.