The theme of this picture is that of love as a continuum. Stanhope has taken as his title lines from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act Two, Scene 4, in which Viola, disguised as a page, confesses her love for Orsino, Duke of Illyria. They discuss the nature of love, and whether men and women can love equally. Viola tells a story:
She never told her love
But let concealment, like a worm i’the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek: she pin’d in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy,
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?
The widely read Stanhope may have had other sources in mind when conceiving the picture. In 1859, the American President Abraham Lincoln had revived in a speech the ancient Persian adage of 'this too shall pass’. It is hard not to be reminded of the words of the mystic Julian of Norwich also: 'All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well’. Such thoughts are reinforced by the inclusion of a statue of a shepherd (symbolic of Christ the Good Shepherd?) carrying a lamb on his shoulders above the figure of Patience. The picture’s iconography is difficult to unpick. What is the significance of the other statues, for instance? However enigmatic, the picture does create a powerful sense of mood. Painted in 1884 it is a fine example of how pictures characterised as 'Aesthetic’, celebrating the beautiful, were beginning to be perceived as 'Symbolist’ in using thought association from various visual clues to evoke an emotion or state of mind.
The picture is imbued with the spirit of quattrocento Italy, and owes a subliminal debt to Botticelli. Since 1873, Stanhope had lived at the Villa Nuti in Bellosguardo overlooking Florence, forced to flee England and its cold and damp owing to chronic asthma. Of independent means, and equally independent mind, he chose to paint in his own highly idiosyncratic style. He was highly regarded by his peers however, who made sure to visit him on their trips south. Burne-Jones and William Morris for example visited in the summer of that year. He started his career under the tutelage of G F Watts, resident at Little Holland House in Kensington. There he met Burne-Jones and Rossetti, and was invited by them to paint the murals of the Oxford Union in 1857. An interest in mural painting, and indeed the surface of his pictures, led to experiments in tempera: he was a founder of the Society of Painters in Tempera in 1901. He was also noted for his use of colour. Burne-Jones was to tell his studio assistant T. M. Rooke that Stanhope’s 'colour was beyond anything the finest in Europe; an extraordinary turn for landscape he had too – quite individual. Rossetti was in a perfect state of enthusiasm about it’.
Following the death of its first owner, the picture was acquired by Stanhope’s devoted niece, Wilhelmina Stirling, who did so much to preserve the work of both her uncle and her sister, the artist Evelyn de Morgan, and her potter husband William. The picture last appeared on the market twenty years ago when it was sold by the De Morgan Foundation along with 8 other works by Stanhope. Stanhope’s best known work Love and the Maiden, (Christie’s, London, 6 June 1997, lot 43, £727,500) was acquired by the Fine Arts Museums San Francisco in 2002 and formed the lynchpin of its celebrated exhibition Truth and Beauty: The Pre-Raphaelites and the Old Masters (2018).