This magnificent picture, executed in bodycolour, is presented on a colossal scale for a work on paper, and retains its original frame, designed by the artist. Executed in 1897-1898 after the success enjoyed with The Queen of Hearts (see lot 5) the previous year it continues to personify the Queens in a pack of playing cards. Sadly the Queens of Clubs and Diamonds were never attempted. As with The Queen of Hearts, the narrative of the nursery rhyme is not closely followed although the spirit of the queen’s character is portrayed. According to cartomancy, (the custom of fortune telling with cards), the Queen of Spades is often personified as a widow who is cold and calculating. At the end of the 19th century there was a marked increase in interest in freemasonry, and the occult. In Rider-Waite’s celebrated deck of tarot cards published in 1909, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith, the card entitled the Empress shares a comparable iconography with this work by Byam Shaw. The Empress sits in front of a symbolic canopy, a veil between occult knowledge and the more mundane world. Reference to the spiritual is supported by the stained glass to the right contrasting with the open vista to the left, and the standing knights, who are pictorially akin to the pillars supporting any sacred portal. All of these elements are Masonic elements, and it is perhaps to that quarter that one should look for further interpretation.
The picture is characterised by brilliant colour and richness of decorative detail. Byam Shaw liked to paint in pure pigment and the tone of the colour is high. The palette revels in the richness of the reds, heightened with gold, which serve to counterpoint the more restricted use of black, and white. The Queen is a secular Madonna, enthroned in the manner of a Bellini, and other Venetian Masters. The landscape glimpsed through a window to the left, reminds viewers of more contemporary depictions of the Lady of Shalott, immured within her tower. Byam Shaw shared a studio with Frank Cadogan Cowper who was five years younger than him. It is interesting to see in this picture how Cowper, who is arguably now the better known artist, took his love of fabric and brocade, and his use of hieratic compositions, from pictures such as this.
The picture’s first owner was Dame Madge Kendal, a celebrated actress and theatre manager at the end of the 19th century, who had appeared in the West End alongside Ellen Terry and others. The picture is highly decorative and theatrical which no doubt accounted for its appeal. Dame Madge then bequeathed it to Evelyn, Lady Durand who owned the picture for more than fifty years.
We are grateful to Emma Donovan for her suggestions about the links between cartomancy and the present lot.