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Sir Edward John Poynter, Bt., P.R.A. (1836-1919)
Sir Edward John Poynter, Bt., P.R.A. (1836-1919)

A Visit to Aesculapius

Sir Edward John Poynter, Bt., P.R.A. (1836-1919)
A Visit to Aesculapius
signed and dated '18EJP75' (lower left) and inscribed 'E. T. Poynter R.A./Venus Aesculapius/In time long past when in Diana's chase/a bramble bush prickt Venus in the foote/Olde Aesculapius healpt her heavie case/Before the hurte had taken any roote:/Where... although his beard was crisping /her she yielded him delight for his rewarde' (attached to J.P. Heseltine's label on the backboard)
pencil and watercolour heightened with gum arabic and with scratching out, on paper laid on a wooden board
12 x 18 in. (30.5 x 45.6 cm.)
J.P. Heseltine, who probably acquired it from the artist; (+) Sotheby's, London, 29 May 1935 (3rd day), lot 444 (to R.F.M. Scott).

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Lot Essay

This is a preliminary watercolour version of the picture that is arguably Poynter's masterpiece, A Visit to Aesculapius (Tate Britain). The quintessence of Victorian classicism, the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1880 and bought for the Chantrey Bequest. The watercolour, which was executed five years earlier, anticipates the oil in all important respects, although some of the forms have been reconsidered, giving the oil a more resolved and definitive effect.

Aesculapius, the son of Apollo, was the great physician in classical mythology, with an oracle at Epidaurus. The picture shows him being appealed to for help by Venus, whose foot, due to the malevolence of her rival Diana, has been pricked by a bramble while she was out hunting. The goddess is accompanied by three of her maidens, while one of Aesculapius' attendants scoops water from a fountain to bathe the injured foot.

Poynter took the story from a work by the Elizabethan poet Thomas Watson (1557 (?)-1592), The Hekatompathia, or Passionate Centurie of Love (1582), quoting the relevant passage in the Royal Academy catalogue. The twentieth poem in the sequence tells the story of Venus's mishap, and how the goddess rewards Aesculapius with a kiss when he successfully removes the bramble. Something similar has happened to me, says the poet: 'My luck was like to this the other day.'

The watercolour belonged to J.P. Heseltine, a trustee of the National Gallery for almost forty years and one of the most respected connoisseurs and collectors of his day. Himself a competent draughtsman and etcher, he knew many artists including Poynter, from whom he probably bought the drawing direct. Poynter's watercolour portrait of Mrs Heseltine (private collection) was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery, London, in 1873, two years before our picture was painted.

Heseltine's taste was catholic. His collection, which took three days to disperse in May 1935, included paintings by old and modern masters, old master and nineteenth-century European drawings, and English drawings and watercolours. But one consistent thread was a liking for images of attractive female models. Works by Liotard, Highmore, Boucher, Fragonard, Boilly and Ingres conformed to this pattern, as did The Farmer's Daughter by Millais, an oil of circa 1863 formerly in Heseltine's collection that was sold in these Rooms on 14 March 1997, lot 57. The present watercolour, which treats a subject deliberately chosen to show Poynter's command of the female nude, is yet another example.

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