This is a faithful full-scale copy of Arthur Hughes's painting Elaine with the Armour of Launcelot, also known as The Knight's Guerdon (private collection; see Leonard Roberts, Arthur Hughes: His Life and Works, Woodbridge, 1997, p. 171, no. 92, and col. pl. 62). The original painting, probably executed in 1867, illustrates one of the most popular scenes in Tennyson's Idylls of the King, the opening lines of 'Lancelot and Elaine':
Elaine the fair, Elaine the loveable,
Elaine, the lily maid of Astolat,
High in her chamber up a tower to the east
Guarded the sacred shield of Lancelot.
Hughes shows the girl holding her hero's helmet, but her thoughts seem to be the same as those inspired by the shield. Tennyson describes how she
Now made a pretty history to herself
Of every dint a sword had beaten in it,
And every scratch a lance had made upon it,
Conjecturing when and where: this cut is fresh;
That ten years back; this dealt him at Caerlyle;
That at Caerleon; this at Camelot:
And ah God's mercy, what a stroke was there!
And here a thrust that might have kill'd, but God
Broke the strong lance, and roll'd his enemy down,
And saved him: so she lived in fantasy.
Florence Bell was the daughter of Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell (1816-1904), a metallurgical chemist and ironmaster with extensive industrial interests in the north-east of England. These included ironworks on the Tyne and at Port Clarence on the Tees, as well as a chemical plant at Washington, Gateshead. Like so many Victorians of his type, Bell was intensely public-spirited, serving as Mayor of Newcastle, Deputy Lieutenant and High Sheriff of County Durham, and an MP. He was raised to the baronetcy in 1885, and another daughter, Mary, married Lyulph Stanley, the brother of Rosalind, Countess of Carlisle.
Sir Lowthian Bell was a staunch patron of the arts. Rounton Grange, his house at Northallerton in Yorkshire, was built by Philip Webb and decorated by William Morris in the early 1870s, and he owned pictures by Cox, Millais, Boyce, Prinsep, Calderon, Goodwin and others. Both his wife Margaret and his daughter Florence were artistic. During the years 1874-1882 they embroidered a needlework frieze illustrating Chaucer's Romance of the Rose (now in the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow) which was designed for the dining room at Rounton Grange by Morris and Burne-Jones. On the evidence of the present copy, Florence was also an accomplished painter.
Sir Lowthian Bell owned one painting by Arthur Hughes, Beauty and the Beast (untraced; Roberts, no. 63), which was shown at the Royal Academy in 1865, but the picture copied by Florence was owned by a more distant kinsman, William Watson Pattinson (1813-1894) of New House, Felling, Gateshead. Lowthian Bell's wife Margaret was Pattinson's cousin, and in addition to this family connection the two men were business partners, shared a concern for social issues, and took a common interest in the arts. Bell owned paintings by a number of artists, including Turner, Varley, Bell Scott, Birket Foster and Simeon Solomon, but he seems to have been particularly attracted to the work of Arthur Hughes. Not only did he own two of his subject pictures, Elaine and The Singer (Roberts, no. 84, col. pl. 57), but commissioned an ambitious group portrait of his seven children (Forbes Magazine Collection; Roberts, no. 85, col. pl. 58). He also appears to have considered ordering another group, perhaps showing himself and his wife, although this failed to materialise. The picture of the Pattinson children, entitled A Birthday Picnic, was in progress in 1866 and was exhibited at the Royal Academy the following year. Elaine and The Singer were also acquired at this time. Florence Bell copied Elaine in 1870, and Pattinson sold the original painting in 1886.
For further information about the Bells, Pattinson and their cultural interests, see the catalogue of the exhibition Pre-Raphaelites: Painters and Patrons in the North East, held at the Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, 1989-90.