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Thomas Stothard, R.A. (1755-1834)
Thomas Stothard, R.A. (1755-1834)

The Canterbury Pilgrims

Thomas Stothard, R.A. (1755-1834)
The Canterbury Pilgrims
oil on panel
14 ¾ x 55 ½ in. (37.5 x 141 cm.)
Possibly John Benson, Doncaster.

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Lot Essay

Stothard executed his first painting of Chaucer's famous pilgrims, slightly smaller than the present painting and entitled The Pilgrimage to Canterbury (12 ½ x 37 ½ in., 1806-7, Tate, London), at the suggestion of the engraver and publisher, Robert Hartley Cromek. William Blake criticised Stothard’s project as he claimed that the basic design and concept had been stolen from him by Cromek on a visit to his studio in 1805. Later Blake claimed that he had been the artist first commissioned to paint the work. Blake proceeded to create his famous tempera painting of this subject, essentially a mirror-image of Stothard’s design, which he finished by 1808/9 (Pollock House, Glasgow).

It was exhibited at Cromek's rooms on Newman Street from March 1807 to much acclaim. The artist John Hoppner called it the 'most happy discrimination of character' in which Stothard had 'studied the human heart with as much attention, and not less successfully, than the Poet. [The] charm of colouring...is strong, and most harmoniously distributed throughout the picture' (Letter, 30 May 1807, in D.M. Read, 'The Rival "Canterbury Pilgrims of Blake and Cromek', Modern Philology, vol. 86, no. 2, November 1988, p. 175). Another critic wrote that 'the present picture is by far the best that ever proceeded from the pencil of Mr. Stothard...It is the particular merit of this Piece that the story is immediately brought home to the spectator; he becomes instantly one of the groupe [sic]' (Anonymous, in D.M. Read, op. cit., pp. 175-6).

According to the artist's son there are three later versions of the composition by Stothard, however this painting appears to be one of four known version. The three others include: one for Samuel Boddington, on panel, 11 x 37 in., sold in these Rooms, 25 April 1975 (lot 35) and now at Beaney House of Art and Knowledge; another for his friend Samuel Rogers on panel, 4 ¾ x 16 in., sold at Sotheby's, 14 March 1984, lot 106; and one on canvas, 12 x 36 ½ in., sold at Sotheby's, 29 October 1986, lot 270. On 13 September 1813 Stothard wrote to John Benson at Doncaster, presumably regarding the present painting: 'I have been so entirely engaged in copying the Pilgrims for my friend Rogers, of the same size, and one larger for yourself, and for this I put everything aside; and last week I completed the business. As the panel of this picture is not so stout, I have put it into the frame wherein the Shakespeare was exhibited, and well secured it in a good case...I have lengthened the composition a little, and have made some trifling additions, and a transposition in the group of the five citizens; and as to the colouring and effect, I have endeavoured to strengthen both. I hope you will think so when you see it. It will give me great pleasure if I have succeeded to your satisfaction' (Letter in Mrs Bray, Life of Thomas Stothard, R.A., London, 1851, p. 144).

For the background Stothard executed sketches of the Surrey Hills from the Old Kent Road, Peckham, as the tale begins when the travellers are only a few miles out of London.

The characters are (from left to right): The Miller and his dogs; the Host; The Doctor of Physic; the Merchant; the Sergeant-at-law; the Franklin; the Knight; the Reve, the Young Squire; the Yeoman; the Ploughman; the Good Parson; the Nun's Priest; the Nun; the Lady Prioress; the Shipman; the Oxford Scholar; the Manciple; Chaucer the Poet; the Wife of Bath; the Pardoner; the Sommoner; the Monk; the Friar; the Goldsmith; the Weaver; the Haberdasher; the Dyer; the Tapestry Merchant; and the Cook.

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