Frederick Richard Pickersgill, R.A. (1820-1900)
Frederick Richard Pickersgill, R.A. (1820-1900)

Britomart unarming

Frederick Richard Pickersgill, R.A. (1820-1900)
Britomart unarming
signed 'F.R. Pickersgill ARA.' (on the backboard)
oil on canvas, shaped top
50 x 42 in. (127 x 106.7 cm.)
S.R. Christie-Miller; Christie's, London, 7 July 1930, lot 24 (21 gns to Findlay).
Anonymous sale; Christie's, London, 1 November 1990, lot 291.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 4 June 1997, lot 147.
Art Journal, 1855, p. 170.
Athenaeum, 1855, p. 591.
London, Royal Academy, 1855, no. 16.

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Sarah Reynolds
Sarah Reynolds

Lot Essay

'With that, her glistring helmet she unlaced;
Which doft, her golden lockes, that were upbound
Still in a knot, until her heels downe traced,

Such when those Knights and Ladies all about
Beheld her, all were with amazement smit'
Edmund Spenser, Faerie Queene, Book IV, canto 1, v. 13-14

Frederick Richard Pickersgill came from an artistic background and was tutored from a young age by his uncle, the artist William Frederick Witherington (1785–1865). Pickersgill exhibited fifty works at the Royal Academy between 1839 and 1875, the majority of which derived their subjects from literature, religion, and scenes from ancient history and the Renaissance. The subject for the present lot is taken from Book IV, Canto I, v. xiii and xiv from Edmund Spenser’s 16th Century epic poem, The Faerie Queene. The work is primarily allegorical, and the heroine Britomart is the virgin Knight of Chastity, meant as an embodiment of Queen Elizabeth and British military power. Pickersgill exhibited Britomart Unarming at the Royal Academy in 1855, the last of six Spenserian subjects he showed there over a fifteen-year period.
In the present work Pickersgill’s debt to William Etty can be evinced through both the subject matter, which Etty had tackled twenty years earlier in 1833, and also the adoption of a Venetian painterly style. The scene represented here is the climactic moment where Britomart removes her helmet to unveil her identity, as she has previously been clad in armour and disguised as a knight to protect her mistress, Amoret. The juxtaposition of the heavy armour she wears with her flowing auburn hair and porcelain skin further underscores her femininity. Her lady, whom she has protected, tenderly holds her arms around her waist, with her head resting upon her breast. Amoret’s white dress indicates her purity, which Britomart has so boldly defended, and the defeated young knight gazes up in dismay at her feet. In the narrative the two women, once revealed to each other, become close, and the painting serves to celebrate female strength, vulnerability and friendship.

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