This derives from a second version of the triptych exhibited by Poole at the Royal Academy in 1849. The central panel is largest in scale and its composition is most fully formed, boasting a rare intellectual integrity. The graceful interrelation of the figures, where both slumped and standing forms mirror their counterpart, in itself conveys the character of Shakespeare's play. It is both seductive and illusory, peopled with trickery. This is facilitated by its peripheral cast of sprites and elves serving Prospero. Even when absent, this entourage embodies the mystery of the island on which the exiled Duke of Milan, Prospero, and his daughter Miranda, reside. They lend the play a unique and idiosyncratic poetry which is both visual and literary.
The picture seems particularly representative of its maker. Paul Falconer Poole was almost entirely self-taught, but achieved early success with his Academy exhibit of 1843, the characteristically dramatic Solomon Eagle exhorting the People to Repentance (Sheffield). In 1857 he won a prize for his entry in the Westminster Hall competitions, a cartoon depicting Edward III's Generosity to the People of Calais. He also achieved personal notoriety, as he became involved with the wife of his friend and associate Francis Danby, and married her following Danby's death in 1861. He exhibited widely: at the Academy, British Institution and Suffolk Street. The roll-call of works exhibited at the Academy reveal his penchant for long titles, directly derived from literary sources. Their meandering, and sometimes bizarre, character endorses our sense of Poole as an absolute individual who was eminently suited to his ethereal subjects. Ruskin commented perceptively in 1875: 'there has always been in Mr. Poole's work, some acknowledgement of a supernatural influence in physical phenomena'. Poole draws us right into the narrative, letting the very rhythms of his forms lull us into imaginative receptivity. He was also known for his ability to portray light, and impart a 'golden glow' to finished works.
Poole perhaps paid tribute to Richard Dadd's Academy exhibit of 1842, Come Unto These Yellow Sands, also inspired by The Tempest. It was much praised, and showed resident sprites dancing across the beach and through a rock arch. Poole also uses a natural rock face, which is arched as a cathedral might be, with many parallel windows and exterior shapes. The sea beyond is calm, reminding us that the tempest of the title has now subsided, whilst the more complicated rankling of human relations is incipient.
The picture shows Sebastian and Antonio foiled in their plot to murder Alonzo, the shipwrecked King of Naples. In the play, Ariel alerts the king's councillor Gonzalo, who here sleeps undisturbed (upper right). Ariel himself disturbs Alonzo, his finger delicately touching the royal forehead (in a moment of dramatic contact as graceful as that between the barbaric brother's toe and the fearful greyhound in Millais' Isabella, 1849).
Poole's painting abounds in such exquisite details. The tiny bird which hovers over the sleeping maid to the left; the parted fingers of the girl in pink and blue - these accentuate our sense of this being a pivotal moment in time. The colours are also well judged, and evocative of Venetian art in their softness and accord.
The Art Journal referred to Poole's original triptych as a 'work of considerable magnitude' in its review of the Academy exhibition. This later version deserves like praise today, as it holds its own as one of the most enchanting works in the collection.