This impressive watercolour is something of an enigma. Sold in 1969 as ‘Attributed to D.G. Rossetti’, it incorporates elements of the work of several of his followers. It has previously been associated with both Lucy and Catherine Madox Brown, and bears a resemblance to both the work of Henry Treffry Dunn, and early work by Marie Spartali Stillman. These artists’ lives and work were all incredibly tightly intertwined, with all of them inspired by and following Rossetti.
The subject matter here is the story of Messer Ansaldo’s enchanted garden, from Boccacio’s Decameron. The Decameron was a repeated source of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood and their followers, and Stillman’s most famous work took this story as its subject (see lot 4).
Lucy (1843-1894) and Catherine Madox Brown (1850-1927) both studied with their father Ford Madox Brown, and worked in his studio. They seem perhaps the most unlikely of the possible authors of this picture on stylistic grounds, but Lucy was married to Rossetti’s brother, William Michael, and so was close to him. Her work tends to take literary subjects, often in domestic settings, whilst Catherine’s errs towards a greater sentimentality and is not as accomplished as her sister’s.
Marie Spartali Stillman (1844-1927) also trained in Madox Brown’s studio, and her husband, William Stillman, was the model for the magician in Lucy’s painting of The Magic Mirror, which shares the concept of a vision contained within a large circular vignette. Marie modelled for both Rossetti and for Treffry Dunn (who in turn modelled for her). Like both of them, Stillman adopted the Mannerist practice of elongating the sitters’ hands as seen here and in works like The Lady Prays – Desire (1867, Private Collection) and A Chaldean Priest (1872, Private Collection), whilst the straight-nosed features of the principal figures are also stylistically similar to her work. The ‘vision’ part of the picture is markedly more naïve in style, suggesting that it is likely to be an early work, by an artist still exploring their ways of working. These figures somewhat resemble those of Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919), who was at different times both Edward Burne-Jones and Rossetti’s studio assistant, and a close friend of the Stillmans.
Henry Treffry Dunn (1838-1899), who is another possible author of this work, is perhaps best known as Rossetti’s studio assistant and for his posthumous Recollections of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his circle. He was an accomplished copyist, frequently producing versions of Rossetti’s pictures, but his work in his own right is less well-known. Often slightly awkward, and lacking in the imagination usually associated with Rossetti’s followers, his own pictures are often not of the standard of the present watercolour.
Enigmatic but enchanting, it is a fascinating example of the interwoven lives, stories and working practices of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers.
We are grateful to Scott Thomas Buckle for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.