This is an important study, previously believed unlocated, for Hughes's painting The Pained Heart (which also bears an old label inscribed 'Sigh no more, ladies'). The picture, one of Hughes's most enticing, was conceived in 1867-8 and reworked in 1872 (see catalogue to The Maas Gallery Exhibition, London, June - 12 July 1996, p.18, no.19). This study chronicles the original version, exhibited in the Royal Academy in 1868 (but without a title); and, as Leonard Roberts points out in his catalogue raisonée of Hughes, shows one figure rather than the two represented in its final metamorphosis.
The quotation, from Much Ado about Nothing, provides us with a generic conception of the picture's subject: a young girl who wistfully dreams of her beloved. However, The Pained Heart is also identified as Juliet and her Nurse in an inscription on the old label. Although this is not in the artist's hand, the second figure (who appears in 1872) does resemble Juliet's nurse; attired in matronly black and white, kindly of demeanour, she leans down to console her melancholy ward.
Many details concur between this and the present study, however. In both the girl is seated before a casement window, which is partially obscured by a fine veil-like curtain, and wears a medieval-style dress with gathered sleeves. However in the present study she sits beside a neglected sewing frame. The motif is concordant with Romantic ideas of frustrated feminine desire - Tennyson's Mariana and Keats's Lady of Shalott being the archetypes: heroines who disown industry for love. Indeed, Mariana in the moated grange (1868) (Hugh Lane Municipal Gallery of Modern Art, Dublin; Roberts loc. cit., p. 172, no. 94.3, illustrated) shows Hughes developing his conception with Tennyson's poem in mind; here the girl is entertained by a young lute-player, whose song perhaps articulates her dreams.