John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908)
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John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908)

Knowledge strangling Ignorance

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (1829-1908)
Knowledge strangling Ignorance
signed and inscribed 'Knowledge Strangling/-Ignorance-by/R. Spencer Stanhope/-Florence-' (on the artist's label attached to the backboard)
pencil, watercolour and bodycolour with gum arabic, heightened with gold
19 7/8 x 13¾ in. (50.5 x 35 cm.)
Probably Mrs Mure by 1909.
Mrs A.M.W. Stirling.
The De Morgan Foundation, Christie's, London, 28 November 2001, lot 4, where purchased by the present owner.
London, Royal Academy, 1902, no. 919.
Probably Birmingham, Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, Special Collection of Works by the late R. Spencer Stanhope, Autumn exhibition, 1909, no. 55, lent by Mrs Mure.
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Lot Essay

Stanhope exhibited two pictures with this title, almost certainly versions of the same composition. One appeared at the New Gallery in 1890 (no. 81), the other at the Royal Academy in 1902, together with The Vision of Ezekiel which was sold in the Rooms on 28 November 2001, lot 9. Our picture is the 1902 version, while the one exhibited twelve years earlier was a much larger oil. Showing Knowledge dressed in pink and Ignorance draped in black, it is recorded as having perished in a fire in October 1991.

The present picture is a late work, and has a number of features in common with The Vision of Ezekiel, its companion at the Royal Academy in 1902. Particularly notable are the very linear and angular treatment of the drapery and the way in which blue wash is used to lend distance to the background. Yet despite the painter's age (seventy-three), there is no falling off in quality. The forms are realised with care and precision, and the two allegorical figures are well characterised. Nor is there any diminution of the sense of colour for which Stanhope had been admired by his fellow artists at the beginning of his career. The way the red of Knowledge's wings is picked up by the tattered banner and the roofs, and then offset against passages of blue and gold, is a fine chromatic invention. It is the sort of colour harmony that Gustave Moreau often created. We know of no formal link between the two artists, but Moreau was only three years Stanhope's senior and working very much in the same Symbolist tradition.

The moated and turretted castle is a motif that Stanhope had used many years before in Our Lady of the Water Gate, a masterpiece of the late 1860s or early 1870s that appeared in these Rooms in November 1992. The white sky is also a familiar Stanhopian touch. As for the protagonists - a female figure with flying drapery leaning over a naked man, with unkempt hair, seated on the ground - there is perhaps the faintest echo here of the central group in Botticelli's Calumny of Apelles in the Uffizi. Stanhope, who lived in Florence from the early 1870s until his death in 1908, occupying the Villa Nuti at Bellosguardo, would have known this picture well, but any relationship with his watercolour can hardly be more than a matter of unconscious reminiscence.

It has been suggested that The Vision of Ezekiel may make some reference to Victorian fears on the subject of immortality. If, as this suggests, Stanhope deliberately adopted a symbolist agenda in his old age, then it is tempting to look for some comparable meaning in his allegory of the conflict between ignorance and knowledge. Was he perhaps thinking of the civilising force of the British Empire, as Ignorance's broken fetters might indicate? Or were his thoughts nearer home as he made a mute protest at the crass stupidity of Florence's tourists? We know that he hated change and so-called progress. In 1889 he exhibited at the New Gallery a picture entitled In Memorium. The Old City Walls by the Jews' Burial Ground, Florence, now in course of removal.

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