This is a study for Hughes's painting Madeleine (1864; Gordon Bottomley bequest, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle). Showing a girl in a purple gown, lovingly fingering a coral necklace as she returns it to its casket, the subject derives from Keats' poem The Eve of St Agnes (1821). Porphyro, concealed in Madeleine's chamber, watches entranced as she delicately disposes of her finery: '...her vespers done, Of all its wreathed pearls her hair she frees; Unclasped her warmed jewels one by one'.
Hughes was probably inspired to treat the subject by Millais, whose monumental work The Eve of St Agnes (Collection of Her late Majesty the Queen Mother) was completed in 1863. The pose, like many devised by the artist, was reinterpreted in different works such as The Music Party (1861-4; National Museum of Liverpool), wherein the central figure gazes down at her lute. However, if we are correct in judging this to be Hughes's sketch for the Carlisle Madeleine, (concurring with the inscription on an old label, verso, which dates it c. 1860) it may represent the first intimations of this figure type, with her lowered head, rippling hair, and precious trophy. The prime version has an arched top, a device often used by Hughes to accentuate the seraphic nature of his heroines. A pencil sketch of the figure, entitled The Casket and dated to circa 1865, also exists in Carlisle. The fact that it shares the arched-top, half-length, composition of the full-scale work justifies its post-dating whereas the present oil study lacks these developments in format. The pose was again adapted for The Guarded Bower (1864-5, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery) in which the girl's raised hand is grasped by her lover's and her face is turned more towards the viewer.