The picture was the last but one that Maclise (fig.1) exhibited at the Royal Academy. It appeared there in 1869, a year before his death at the age of sixty-four. It was the first time that the exhibition, formerly held in what is now the National Gallery building in Trafalgar Square, had taken place at Burlington House, Piccadilly, the Academy's home to this day. As the exhibition catalogue reminded viewers, the subject is derived from an old English ballad and is twice mentioned by Shakespeare, in Romeo and Juliet and Love's Labour's Lost. The ballad relates how an African king, hitherto resistant to female charms, falls in love with a beggar maid whom he sees as she passes his tent, or, in another version, from his palace window. Swearing that he will make her his wife, he woos and wins her, and they live happily ever after.
Tennyson also treated the story in a short two-stanza poem, 'The Beggar Maid', which was included in the famous illustrated edition of his poems published by Edward Moxon in 1857. Maclise contributed two illustrations to the volume, both for the poem 'Morte d'Arthur', and his interest in the story of King Cophetua may date from this time. His treatment, however, is closer to the ballad than to Tennyson's poem, and specifically to the 'tent' version of the tale in its traditional form. The picture has a camp-like setting, as if the king was on some military manoeuvre or hunting expedition, while the black servant who fills his cup hints at a vaguely north African mise-en-scne.
Since the late 1830s Maclise had tended to treat his historical subjects in terms of panoramic, multi-figured compositions. He was particularly attracted to complex scenes of conviviality and feasting. The closest parallel to the present picture is King Alfred in the Camp of the Danes (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne), exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852, where again the design hinges on the large central motif of a tent. This picture was based on a cartoon, now lost, that Maclise submitted in 1846 to one of the competitions held in Westminster Hall to find artists capable of decorating the new Houses of Parliament with frescoes, and his deep involvement in this daunting scheme did nothing to reduce his fondness for elaborate reconstructions of historical or legendary events. The trend reached a climax in the two enormous murals, The Meeting of Wellington and Blcher and The Death of Nelson, which he completed in the Royal Gallery of the House of Lords in 1865, only four years before he painted King Cophetua.
In his memoir of Maclise, the artist's friend and fellow Irishman W. Justin O'Driscoll describes our picture's development at some length. It is first heard of on 17 June 1868 when Maclise wrote to John Wardell, a Dublin merchant who had expressed a wish to own Madeline after Prayer, an illustration to Keats's 'Eve of St Agnes' that Maclise was exhibiting at that year's Academy. Wardell already possessed Maclise's Spirit of Chivalry (Sheffield City Art Galleries), an easel version of another mural in the House of Lords, and he seems to have formed a fine collection of modern British paintings. Thirteen of his pictures, not including Cophetua, were sold posthumously at Christie's in May 1880, and among them were major works by G. F. Watts and E. J. Poynter, as well as examples of Thomas Creswick, James Hayllar, Horatio McCulloch, Richard Redgrave, Frank Stone, William Cave Thomas, and others.
As it happened, Madeline after Prayer was already sold, but Maclise told Wardell that he had been
engaged for some short time on a subject that will have one female figure, but there must be four or five men introduced: this last, and the necessity of the picture being something like six feet by four, might not, perhaps, deter you from adopting it a year hence, if I can go on and prosper with it.
Tempted in this way, Wardell asked for further details, and Maclise replied as follows:
The picture I have on my easel is one I have long wished to paint - King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid - see Old Ballad and Tennyson; but I choose to invent the scene, and figure to myself a young king, with a few retainers grouped about him, under a tent, and he, seeing her pass by, loves her -- weds her (as I hope). It may be completed in April next year, for the first Exhibition which we expect will take place in the New R.A., Burlington House, and our centenary of existance.
I shall dally with it, and care not to paint anything else in this year; but you shall only take the picture -- if, indeed, you think of it - on the express condition of your admiring it.
I am living at Brighton, in charge of my sister and two nieces, for a month or so; but I grieve to say, in spite of sea and sunsets, my old habits lead me to shut out both, and convert 'an eligible drawing-room facing the sea' into an atelier.
The last paragraph refers to Maclise's obligations to his younger sister, Anna, and her daughters. Her husband, Percival Weldon Banks, a barrister and man of letters who had frequently, like Maclise himself, contributed to Fraser's Magazine, had died in 1850, leaving Maclise financially responsible for his family. Not only did Maclise paint the picture partly at their house in Brighton, but subsequently, after his return to his studio at 4 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, one of his nieces, Rhoda Banks, modelled for the principal figure. On 10 January 1869 he wrote to her, asking he: to call on him 'on Tuesday..., not later than twelve o'clock, that I m:y try to paint from you my Beggar Maide'.
W:rdell decided to buy the picture, and it was eventually sent to him in Dublin with a note by Maclise assuring him that 'my satisfaction is complete in thinking that, amid all the agitations of disestablishement and disendowment, Ireland can still give heed to the claims of art.' Meanwhile it had won acclaim at the Academy, where it hung in the Great Room and was, according to O'Driscoll, 'one of the gems of the exhibition.' 'Mr Maclise,' wrote Tom Taylor in the Times,
has exhibited no picture for many years so harmonious in colour
and so agreeable in general effect...That the figures are well grouped, vigorously drawn, with great command of foreshortening, and that all the accessories are painted with a singular precision and force, need hardly be said. The painter's keenness of vision, causing him to see things with exceptional distinctness, may be at the bottom of (his) emphatic... definition of objects.
The Art Journal was also impressed. 'The drawing of the figures shows a master's hand', its critic wrote; and although he felt that 'such a scene as here depicted may savour of the stage rather than of nature', he added: 'still on that account it may be scarcely the less pleasant to look upon, at least in a picture-gallery. The "beggar maid" is a lovely impersonation, perhaps too lovely to be real: her face is her fortune'.
F.G. Stevens, writing as art critic of the Athenaeum, thought that 'Mr Maclise's single picture may be ranked with the best he has wrought'. If he had a reservation, it was that the beggar maid herself embodied a contradiction: 'the extreme cleanness and perfect raggedness of the damsel are not consistent characteristic elements of one subject.' Nonetheless, Stephens admired the 'finely-rendered action of modesty' with which the girl 'covers her breast from the eyes of the ardent king as he sits looking on her graceful form. His Majesty's face is one of the aptest and handsomest of Mr Maclise's painting, as the drawing and colouring of the picture are to the artist's honour'.
The Art Journal's comment that the picture 'savours of the stage rather than of nature' is significant. Like his friends Charles Dickens and John Forster, Maclise was passionately interested in the theatre. He often treated Shakespearian themes, and many of his compositions resemble stage sets. In the late 1840s he also painted two notable theatrical portraits, of Macready in the name-part of Byron's Werner and of Forster as Kitely in Dickens's amateur but highly successful production of Every Man in His Humour (both Victoria and Albert Museum).
By the end of his career, the theatricality of Maclise's work had been eclipsed by the material and psychological realism introduced by the Pre-Raphaelites. There is an echo of this in F.G. Stephens's seemingly rather pedantic observation that the 'cleanness' of the beggar maid is inconsistent with her 'raggedness'. Stephens had been a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood on its foundation in 1848, and although he had abandoned his brush for art journalism, the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic continued to inform his writing. Meanwhile the Pre-Raphaelites themselves were demonstrating how, in their view, the theme of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid ought to be rendered. Holman Hunt illustrated Tennyson's poem 'The Beggar Maid' in the Moxon edition of 1857, producing a rather spare, 'minimal' design which the poet himself disliked (fig. 2). But it was Burne-Jones who made the definitive statement on the subject. His monumental painting King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (fig. 3), in which the essentially light-hearted ballad becomes the text for a portentous sermon on the abasement of power and wealth before beauty and poverty, brought the artist fame at home when it was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1884 and abroad when it re-appeared at the Exposition Universelle in Paris five years later.
Fig. 1, Maull & Polybank, Photograph of Daniel Maclise.
Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Fig. 2, William Holman Hunt, illustration to Tennyson's poem 'The Beggar Maid'. Woodcut published in the Moxon Tennyson, 1857.
Fig. 3, Edward Coley Burne-Jones, King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, oil on canvas, 112 x 53 in. (284.5 x 136 cm.), 1880-84.
c Tate Gallery, London, 1999.