Henry Wallis is chiefly remembered for two early Pre-Raphaelite masterpieces: The Death of Chatterton (1856; Tate Gallery), modelled by the young George Meredith and highly praised by Ruskin, and The Stonebreaker (1858; Birmingham), one of the most poignant essays in social realism in nineteenth century art. His later work is less intense but by no means without interest. It often plays with the themes of travel, collecting and trade, reflecting his other interests. During his later years he travelled widely, taking part in archaeological expeditions to Italy, Sicily and Egypt, and forming a large collection of Near Eastern ceramics. Many of these he lent to the exhibition of Persian art held at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1885, and he published several books on the ceramic art of Egypt, Persia, Italy and Greece.
A number of his later paintings employ the type of composition seen here, in which figures are disposed against an architectural background which establishes strong horizontals and verticals. In fact the picture has much in common with A Despatch from Trebizond, which was sold in these Rooms on 2 November 1990, lot 296, and showed two Venetian merchants seated on a stone bench outside St Mark's, reading a letter which had just been delivered by a courier. The general composition, the theme of two figures in Renaissance costume seated deep in conversation, and the silhouetting of the strongly coloured figures against a pale architectural background, are all repeated. A Despatch from Trebizond was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1873, and our picture must be about the same date. Both works have labels on the back inscribed with Wallis's address at 9 Red Lion Square, where he lived in the early 1870s.