This sheet is a study for the main figure in Poynter’s Perseus and Andromeda, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1872 (no. 505), receiving extremely positive reviews, with The Art Journal noting that ‘The applause which greets Mr. Poynter on the score of this performance will resound through a long hereafter’ (Art Journal, 1872, p. 182). The magnificent finished painting, five feet by thirteen feet, was the first of a series of four commissioned by the first Earl of Wharncliffe for the billiard room at Wortley Hall, near Sheffield, which was undergoing a major redecoration project.
In 1870 Wharncliffe had approached his friend Sir John Everett Millais for advice on the colour schemes of some of the ground floor rooms, and a year later he sought his advice again in finding an artist to undertake two pictures of heroes fighting dragons for the billiard room. Millais recommended the young Poynter, who started work almost immediately on Perseus and Andromeda, hurrying to finish it in time for the 1872 Summer Exhibition. This was followed a year later by The Fight between More of More Hall and the Dragon of Wantley, a subject taken from an old English ballad, with links to the Wortley family. Once these two were completed and hung opposing each other at each end of the billiard room, Wharncliffe felt that another pair was needed to finish the room, and although further dragon legends were discussed, eventually Atalanta’s Race (1876) and Nausicaa and her Maidens Playing at Ball (1879) were chosen as the final two subjects. Poynter also painted a large full-length portrait of the Earl of Wharncliffe for the room, finished in 1881.
Poynter had established his reputation in the mid-1860s, cementing it with his 1867 Royal Academy exhibit, Israel in Egypt, a large and elaborate rendering of a biblical subject. He was elected as an A.R.A. in 1869, and became the first Slade professor of Fine Art at University College, London, in 1871, but spent the years between 1868 and 1870 very much involved with the decoration of the South Kensington Museum and the Houses of Parliament, and so had only exhibited smaller works at the Royal Academy. The Wortley Hall group, widely regarded as Poynter’s greatest achievement in ‘high art’, were a key contribution to his election as an Academician in 1876.
In Greek mythology, Andromeda was the daughter of the Ethiopian King Cepheus and Queen Cassiopeia. She was extremely beautiful – her mother claimed more beautiful than the sea nymphs, who, enraged, complained to Poseidon. He unleashed the sea monster Cetus to ravage the coast of Ethiopia, and eventually the king suggested the sacrifice of Andromeda to appease him. Perseus, returning home from slaying Medusa, found her chained to the rocks and slayed the monster Cetus, before asking for her hand in marriage. The subject was popular with artists throughout the Victorian period, with its nudity and eroticism vindicated by the classical story. In 1870, when Millais’s The Knight Errant, also depicting a bound, nude woman, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, it was widely condemned as degenerate, but a classical subject matter allowed much greater moral leniency. Poynter was cautious about Andromeda’s nudity and wrote to Wharncliffe, ‘One point I should like to make sure of… whether you think you will have an objection to the naked figure of Andromeda’ (A. Inglis, op. cit., p. 250), but neither Wharncliffe or the Academy showed any great concern.
Wortley Hall was bombed during the Second World War and all the paintings in the billiard room were destroyed. Today they are only known from photographs and a handful of preparatory sketches, including a full compositional study of Perseus and Andromeda sold in these Rooms, 4 December 2018, lot 80 (fig. 1). A smaller (6¼ x 18 in.) oil sketch of Perseus and Andromeda was with The Fine Art Society in 1977, and a study for the head of Perseus was with Stephen Ongpin Fine Art, 2013. An Andromeda in oils was sold at Sotheby’s, London, 17 May 2011, lot 17: dated 1869, this was exhibited at the R.A. in 1870, and was probably the starting point for Wharncliffe’s commission.
A chalk study for the head of Andromeda is in the British Museum, London, where the sitter has been identified as Antonia Caiva, a celebrated Italian model who also sat for Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic, Lord Leighton, and Sir William Blake Richmond. The sharing of models demonstrates the close relationships between these late Pre-Raphaelite followers, and Caiva also posed for the nude figure studies Burne-Jones made for The Golden Stairs.