This poignant watercolour refuses to tell its story. The woman rests her head on some steps which suggest an entrance or an exit, but we cannot know where they might lead. Has she been cast out of a home, or has she been denied access?
Corbould depicted the archetypal fallen woman in The Woman Taken in Adultery, which shows Mary Magdalen prostrate. The present subject carries echoes of that biblical fall, but is perhaps more disturbing in its anonymity. Cold anticipates another great Victorian rendering of the isolated female. Frederick James Shields' One of Our Breadwatchers (1886) (fig. 1) shows a young girl huddling in a makeshift shelter, with snow piled around her as she guards the bread. Both Shields and Corbould handle their subjects with pathos, but their paintings have about them a sense of mystery that guards against sentimentality.
Corbould came from a family of artists and studied at the Royal Academy Schools. He exhibited at the New Water-Colour Society from 1837 and at the Royal Academy from 1835 to 1874. His work focused on historical subjects, often literary, inspired by Chaucer, Spenser and Shakespeare. The Woman Taken in Adultery was bought by Prince Albert in 1842 initiating a long association between Corbould and the Royal Family. Many of his works entered Royal Collections at Osbourne House and Buckingham Palace, while Corbould himself was appointed 'instructor of historical painting' to the Royal Family, a post he held for twenty-one years.
For an oil painting by Corbould on a literary subject, see lot 230.